Pursuing Sustainable Diversity

Written by Malcolm Gabriel, Global Leader - Culture, Talent & Inclusion at Corteva Agriscience and CultureCon 2022 presenter.


Diversity initiatives across many companies have been only skin deep, and have not placed enough emphasis on first creating inclusive work cultures, which explains why initiatives can lead to diversity exhaustion. The opportunity here is to position diversity within the business strategy, rather than a stand-alone initiative, and to create inclusive work environments as the driver for diversity. Furthermore, leading inclusive and diverse work teams is hard, and more emphasis is needed on developing leader capabilities to create inclusive cultures that leads to diversity. The following article provides an approach and path for sustaining diversity.


Let’s first review the three main reasons why business leaders support diversity initiatives.

1. The Egalitarian Value

The most obvious is that pursuing diversity initiatives is the morally right thing to do, and it is almost impossible to find anyone that is not supportive of diversity initiatives. At least, no business leader wants to be perceived as resisting the initiatives for fear of the repercussions to their image as a leader. Also, on a more personal level, leaders with family members that are part of a minority, or fall in any of the LGBTQ categories, also want their family members to be supported in companies.

2. The Business Value

Much less commonly emphasized and articulated is the business value for diversity initiatives. Business leaders get caught up on wanting to project an image of diversity, subsequently driving initiatives without clearly articulating its business value to the organization. As a result, front-line managers perceive diversity as an add-on initiative; rather than core to the business strategy. True, diverse organizations attract diverse talent; but by itself it is not a differentiating strategy since almost all organizations in some way are focused on diversity. Differentiation occurs when it is embedded in the business strategy, which can be articulated through two lenses.

a. Continued Market Relevance

The first lens is that companies want to have continued market relevance in the near future. Societal and economic demographics have changed significantly over the past decades, and these shifts are impacting consumers purchasing decisions and the companies with whom they choose to do business. A 2016 Pew Research report, highlights some of these shifts:

  • Americans are more diverse. By 2055, the U.S. will not have a single racial or ethnic majority.

  • Women’s role in the labor force and leadership positions has grown dramatically. In 2011, mothers were the sole or primary breadwinner in 40% of all households with children.

  • The American family is changing, and one-in-six kids now live in a blended family with the roles of mothers and fathers converging due in part to the rise of breadwinner moms.

  • Religiously unaffiliated surged in a short time span, now comprising 23% of U.S. adults in 2015.

To further illustrate the point of continued market relevance, in a recent diversity initiative in which I was involved, a consultant shared an experience of a major U.S.-based B2B company that enjoyed decades of a profitable relationship with a B2C company. But, the B2B Company had not evolved the diversity of its sales team and found themselves out of sync in understanding and being able to empathize with their client’s more diverse procurement organization. The client organization abruptly changed suppliers. Therefore, remaining relevant to the changing demographics of buyers and customers who make purchasing decisions is critical for remaining relevant over the long-term.

b. Innovation

The second reason is Innovation. Companies that are not innovating new products or coming up with creative ways to penetrate new markets will not be competitively sustainable. To be creative and innovative, companies need a team culture that generates diverse thinking; and this requires diverse teams. Rock & Grant (2016) in the Harvard Business Review writes that diverse teams are smarter because working with people who are different from you may challenge your brain to overcome its stale ways of thinking and sharpen its performance. Rock & Grant (2016) go on to cite many research studies with one experiment in particular showing that diverse teams were 58% more likely to be more accurate compared with homogeneous groups.

So, once a well-articulated business case is formulated, we can proceed with engaging business leaders on taking the next steps on inclusion and diversity. Raquel Tamez, CEO of the Society for Hispanic Professional Engineers, writes: “we need to diversify diversity, and make it more inclusive. If we are not intentionally including, then we are unintentionally excluding”. I agree with her; therefore we need to diversify our approach for engaging business leaders on diversity and inclusion. Furthermore, a sustainable diversity strategy that is built on engagement is a plus for broader employee engagement.


I believe that inclusion is the driver for diversity, and that an inclusive environment is a necessary condition for sustaining diversity; but diversity by itself is not a precondition for inclusivity. An organization can be diverse without being inclusive. A diverse team doesn’t mean that it is an inclusive team environment. I’ve observed my fair share of people in minority categories with very non-inclusive xenophobic and homophobic mindsets. Also, a team that is diverse doesn’t necessarily mean that they play well together, or even want to play well together. An inclusive leader or team member possesses traits that is self-aware of their own gaps, and mitigates these by seeking out and collaborating with others that have different thinking and work styles.

Diversity, along traditional ethnic, gender, etc identity lines is very pre-industrial, and outdated. Cable news reporting around election campaign times in the U.S. only reinforces these pre-industrial identities. A modern post-industrial view of diversity is at the uniquely individual level; where talent is seen for their individual cognitive, behavioral, and experience profiles. Just because a team is diverse on a color, religion, gender, or sexual orientation level, it doesn’t actually mean that it has the type of diversity that is needed for innovation. In fact, this superficial level of diversity may not change anything unless it evolves to leveraging talent for their unique and diverse individual strengths, styles, and experiences. Arguably however, the pre-industrial identity lines are probably still practically useful for kick-starting diversity initiatives; largely because people unconsciously and consciously identify themselves through the lens of how society has labelled them. Frankly also, what people see on a company’s website creates a first impression; so working from the basis of a pre-industrial model towards a post-industrial diversity model makes practical sense.

The following is a suggested step-by-step guide for creating inclusive work cultures that would help organizations create and sustain a modern post-industrial diversity journey.

1. Communicate the Business Value

The CEO of the company must come out front to lead the charge on setting the burning platform for pursuing an aggressive inclusive and diversity strategy by clearly linking it directly to the business strategy for market penetration, innovation, and competitive advantage.

2. Remove the Blame

Leaders typically do not authentically own initiatives if they feel that they are being blamed for the lack of diversity. To help re-mediate this potential trap, organizations can begin with Unconscious Bias training for all leaders and employees. By positioning communication that explains that leaders are not intentional about bias helps eliminate the blame, and because unconscious bias affects everyone regardless of level, it becomes an enterprise-wide ownership; not just for the leaders. A good way to implement this is for a handful of key opinion leaders to be trained as trainers in this program. When leaders deliver the training, then it sends a very strong message that this topic is important.

3. Modify Leadership Development Programs

A focus on diversity and inclusion creates the need for developing leaders’ capability to create inclusive cultures, and how to leverage diversity to drive innovation. The difficulty in cultivating and leading a diverse team is often glazed over and under-emphasized in leadership development programs. Evan Apfelbaum in the 2018 MIT Sloan Management Review, says that diversity is not better or worse — it’s just harder - socially, cognitively, and it makes us work. Therefore, leading diverse teams requires more than just using an effective coaching model.

There is well cited research showing that homogeneous teams are less likely than diverse teams to generate better solutions; but the homogeneous teams feel more confident in their solutions despite being less effective at generating the right solutions than the diverse teams.

Apfelbaum (2018) further cites the specific research where diverse groups were factually more accurate than the homogeneous groups, but it was actually the homogeneous groups that were more confident in their results. By implication, if you’re managing two groups and one group tells you that they are 95% confident and other group says that they are 75% confident, then in most organization settings, the group that says they’re 95% sure is mostly likely going to get the support, thereby unfortunately only further reinforcing the reliance on homogeneous teams in organizations.

Measuring Inclusivity

So, what is a useful way to measure the current organizational inclusivity index? Tavares (2018), a partner at the consulting firm Heidrick & Struggles, in an article entitled how to build an inclusive culture work”, piloted a measurement app called SYNAPP. According to Tavares (2018), “many organizations focus on hiring, since it’s easier to quantify; but it is important to look at how people really interact with each other.”

Using SYNAPP to measure and understand connections between people, it asks employees questions like, “Who do you go to for decisions? Who do you go to for new ideas? Who do you trust? Who do you look to for support? Who gives you energy?” By analyzing the answers, Tavares (2018) says, SYNAPP identified the teams that have inclusive cultures, and the teams that did not. For example, in a team that had an equal male-female ratio (checked the gender-diversity box), team members did not look to the opposite gender for decisions, ideas or support. So, in this case, the team was diverse, but not inclusive.

Techniques for creating inclusive environments

While leadership development programs are the best format for learning these skills, here is an amalgamation of some practical tips from the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM, 2018) and Crandall & Kincaid (2014) that leaders can use to build an inclusive team culture.

  • Celebrate employee differences (e.g. meditation prayer room for Muslim employees, or quarterly International Day where a different culture group presents on their customs and norms). Novelis Inc, a $10B rolled aluminum supply company, celebrates different cultures by hosting quarterly culture days where employees from different cultures showcase their country’s traditions and norms.

  • Hold more effective meetings (e.g. rotate the meeting times so that employees on different time zones don’t have to be up at 10pm to participate in a conference call all the time; or distribute agenda materials ahead of the meeting so that others who are not English speaking can review the material and prepare comments and questions).

  • Emphasize more effective communication (e.g. remind everyone to speak slower thereby allowing non-English speakers to follow more smoothly; or when someone is recognized for an idea that someone else put forward earlier in the meeting, point out who shared the idea originally; and if one colleague interrupts another, call attention to it to underscore the importance of letting everyone be heard.

  • Adopt a Say Anything practice; which attempts to address the inhibitors that make candidate communication unsafe; such as: the suffocating aura of the leader’s power, negative past experiences when people spoke candidly, and the fear of judgment and disapproval when offering opinions. In a book authored by Crandall & Kincaid (2014), aptly entitled Say Anything: How Leaders Inspire Ideas, Cultivate Candor, and Forge Fearless Cultures; offers a road map for leaders to reinforce inclusive behaviors:

  • Prove its Safe: make your appreciation for fearless communication explicit, jump in first by speaking vulnerably.

  • Dignify Every Try: when your people start to speak up, dignify the slightest (or even most awkward) try. Make a big deal of it.

  • Be Genuinely Curious: subdue your tendency as a leader to dominate conversation, ask authentic questions (and then really listen), and draw in those who are normally overlooked such as introverts and newcomers.

4. Adopt an Employee Diversity Life-Cycle Dashboard

I’ve long advocated for an employee life-cycle approach to diversity and inclusion for the simple reason that sustaining diversity requires touching all the aspects of employee experiences. Quite simply, actively engaging diverse talent will lead to more focus on development, which in turn leads to retention and a higher probability for promotion, and diversity reflected in higher level positions with high promotion rates, is the most effective way for recruiting more diverse talent. Talent attracts talent, and with more visible diverse leaders will even further increase the engagement of existing diverse talent; therefore making it a continuous loop system. A dashboard can show the data analytics for each diversity group along the employee life-cycle, and prompt discussion on strategies for further workforce development.

Avoid communicating quotas

While companies understandably want to create an immediate impact on diversity within their organization through targets, it is important to consider the unintended consequence of creating a climate of exclusivity; rather than inclusivity. While the results-oriented mantra of “what gets measured gets managed” guides a company’s focus on results, publicly communicating diversity quotas can lead to unstated long-term negative beliefs with adverse impacts for sustaining an inclusive culture. For instance, employees in a company that announces diversity targets are likely to create unconscious beliefs about diverse talent appointed to senior positions; e.g. “that spot is reserved for a female or someone of color”, which can negatively impact the feeling of inclusivity in other demographic groups. Unknowingly, there is also a huge burden on the diversity appointment because the fate of that demographic is beholden on the success of the diversity appointment. If the diverse appointment fails, it very likely creates an unconscious pause for future appointments from that demographic. It is important to emphasize here that these things take place on the unconscious level. No one (at least I hope not) forms these beliefs intentionally. But, creating inclusive cultures is a psychological process; hence it is important to consider both the explicit and implicit implications.

Instead, consider diversity goals not quotas. For example, equity in the candidate flow for minority talent through the hiring process, representation of diverse hires as a percent of the diverse talent availability, engagement rates for women in comparison with the engagement rates for men; or the promotion rates for women as a percentage of their population compared with the promotion rates for men as a percentage of the male population. This is not to say that executives can’t have a personal mission for aggressively pursuing diverse team compositions; but publicly communicating quotas carries significant risks for building inclusive cultures.

5. Sponsor internal affinity groups and external campaigns

So, at this point a business case is in place, and communication is positioned that doesn’t assign blame along with leadership training for creating inclusive and diverse cultures, and a dashboard is shared for measuring diversity along the phases of an employee life-cycle experience. This creates the momentum for launching grassroots affinity groups within the organizations, and at this stage it will not have a shortage of executive sponsors or volunteers. Providing upfront funding to help get the affinity group launched sends a powerful message about the importance of it to the organization.

External campaigns also play a significant role in conveying the importance within the organization to inclusion and diversity, and assigning an executive leader to be the spokesperson can also help position the company in the market as a magnet for talent attraction. With such a demand for talent and shortage of supply, companies have to position themselves attractively to talent from outside the state or city in which they are located. If you are in a state that has a reputation for hostile policies against equality, then it makes it more difficult to attract talent from outside that state. According to the U.S. Equality Map, states like Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee have hostile policies towards equality, which is not helpful for economic development in these states. Companies that are pursuing diversity initiatives located in these states have an opportunity to launch active campaigns within the industry, e.g. Chamber of Commerce, to take a clear stand on these issues with elected leaders. Coke-Cola who has their headquarters in Atlanta, GA celebrates LGBTQ Pride Day by flying the LGBTQ Pride flag. Such visible statements by iconic brands can be a major catalyst for sowing inclusive mindsets in the broader society. Progressive companies are more likely to attract top talent than non-progressive companies.

6. Data analytics and measurement

With a dashboard in place, then the measurement and employee engagement surveys and data analytic models can be refined to dissect trends of diverse groups throughout all the phases, and can essentially aid as a diagnostic tool for business units and departments. These are very helpful for sharing with affinity groups, and can be a catalyst for great discussion.

7. Team diversity profile assessments

Once leaders have been trained about the importance of diverse teams in creating better solutions, and developed the capabilities for cultivating and managing diverse teams; it is necessary to support them with the tools to assess diversity along cognitive and behavioral lines. There are a plethora of tools available that can provide a team’s diversity profile.

8. Modifying processes for promotion and hiring

Tweaking the processes that leads to hiring and promotion decisions is what sustains diversity efforts. Here are some examples of structural changes:

  • Blind resumes in the resume screening phase – although hard to implement, this can help address the unconscious bias that can creep into the screening process.

  • Diverse panel in on-person interviews – this serves to both broaden the perspective of questions to candidates as well as showing candidates the company’s emphasis on diversity and inclusion.

  • Introduce effectiveness at cultivating and building inclusive and diverse teams as a necessary criteria for promoting talent to leadership positions, and advertise these criteria to the organization.

  • Include a diversity and inclusion question in engagement systems; e.g. my manager is effective at cultivating and building inclusive and diverse teams, and incorporate the feedback into talent profiles for talent review discussions.

  • Modify and standardize the interview questions to also include questions around how candidates sort out and cultivated inclusive and diverse work teams.

Meritocracy, Inclusion & Diversity

Effective leaders build high performing inclusive and diverse teams based on meritocracy. There is no shortage of frustration on LinkedIn discussion boards citing perceptions of diversity targets being at the expense of meritocracy; which is precisely the premise of this article that inclusivity should be the basis for diversity. When effectively implemented, inclusion and diversity will enhance an organization’s culture and belief about meritocracy as the basis for hiring and promotion because if meritocracy is not at the core of decisions, then we might as well abandon the capitalist market based economy that has lifted income levels and new product innovations around the world.

HOWEVER, the validity and reliability of conventional methods for measuring merit has long been a subject of raucous debate. Everyone would agree that an effective measurement should be able to accurately predict performance on the job; but current recruiting assessments and processes across industries is rife with conscious and unconscious bias, and doesn’t actually filter the best candidate for the position.

Siofra Pratt (2016) in SocialTalent, lists the types of biases that can affect recruiting decisions:

  1. Conformity Bias - relates to bias caused by peer or management hierarchy pressure if a more senior leader gives their opinion first; others change their opinions.

  2. Physical Bias - the view that the physical attributes a person has will be the most successful, e.g. 60% of CEOs in the US are over 6 foot, but only 15% of the total population is over 6 foot tall.

  3. Affinity Bias - e.g. we attended the same college.

  4. Halo Effect - when we see one great thing about a person and we let the halo glow of that significant thing affect our opinions of everything else about that person.

  5. Horns Effect - direct opposite of the Halo effect.

  6. Similarity Bias - we want to surround ourselves with people we feel are similar to us.

  7. Contrast Effect - for example, we judge whether or not the resume in front of us did as well as the prior resume; rather than the skills and attributes required for the job.

  8. Confirmation Bias - when we make a judgement about another person, we subconsciously look for evidence to back up our own opinions of that person.

I’m pretty confident that anyone of us can recognize one or more of these biases in ourselves. Even the use of the word “pretty” in the previous sentence here is a form of unconscious bias linking confidence to a physical attribute. In other words, beautiful people are more confident than not so beautiful people. It just goes to show how these biases are even rooted in tribal language.

Not to belabor the point, but I find it useful to also include research referenced by Agarwal (2018) in a Forbes (2018) article, “How to Minimize Unconscious Bias During Recruitment” into language in job descriptions as a form of unconscious bias. Women are less like to apply for jobs that have a very long list of ’desirable’ qualities, as they do not wish to waste the employer's time if they are not perfectly suited to the role. Researchers from Harvard and Princeton also found that blind auditions increased the likelihood that female musicians would be hired by an orchestra by 25 to 46 percent. Agarwal (2018) goes on to recommend that in order to avoid gender bias, companies should use blind reviewing of resumes, and to write an inclusive job descriptions using gender-neutral descriptions and avoid gender-coded words.

Embrace Artificial Intelligence

The impediments posed by unconscious biases to selecting the best candidate can feel overwhelming, but all is not lost. Big data, digitization, and artificial Intelligence offers the best remediation to these human flaws. In a case study (Feloni, 2017 in Eubanks, 2019, Artificial Intelligence for HR – Use AI to support and develop a successful workforce), Unilever, a very large reputable consumer goods company known for its HR best practices, adopted an AI-driven assessment and video interview process using game-based assessments to examine candidates on a range of measures, and answers to questions where analyzed by an algorithm which considered body language. The system (which by design had a high predictive validity to performance on the job) then highlighted those candidates who were most successful for the next step of the process.

Feloni (2017) describes the results as impressive citing that Unilever hired the most diverse class ever with a significant increase in minority candidates, and candidates coming from a wider range of universities. Surprisingly, one of the gratifying metrics was that the time to fill dropped from 4 months to 4 weeks, and a survey of candidates showed an 82% satisfaction rate.

While merit is at the core of high performance, the methods for assessing merit has not consistently or reliably yielded the best candidates. Therefore, companies need to embrace artificial intelligence in its talent processes.


In my view, the most effective metric for inclusivity and diversity is when employees believe that their company has an inclusive culture, and believe that their individuality is solicited, valued, and leveraged. Diversity will then just be a natural consequence. In this way, we don’t see people for their color, gender, sexual orientation; but rather for their individuality. When all demographics feel energized by the inclusion and diversity strategy, then you know that your strategy is effective.