For HR leaders, the idea that there is clear competitive advantage to be gained from employing a diverse workforce might be old news.  Acas highlights the link between promoting diversity and harnessing talent on its website.  But minorities are still under-represented at the top of corporations in the UK (and globally), suggesting there remains a way to go in getting the message across to those who matter.     

If you told the Board that on average companies with management teams even just 10% above the norm for diversity have profit figures that are 5.6% higher, wouldn’t they sit up and take notice?   Drawing on data from 366 companies around the globe, a recent McKinsey report, Diversity Matters, examines the link between leadership demographics and financial performance and finds a positive correlation between diverse leadership and strong financial results.  Of course, it could equally be said that well-run companies are more likely to make recruitment and promotion decisions that lead to more diverse leadership teams so that the diversity is a product of the quality of the leadership rather than vice versa, but there is no denying the statistical link and the report explores the possible reasons for the relationship.   

Some of the report’s hypotheses are fairly intuitive – few would be likely to disagree with the proposition that increased diversity brings advantages in talent recruitment, improved resonance with a diverse client base and more innovative decision-making.  But some of the report’s propositions as to how you go about changing the make-up of a team or a whole workforce by changing behaviours and disrupting old habits and routines make for more thought-provoking reading.   

The psychology behind this suggests that the way we behave is heavily influenced by subconscious factors – “unconscious bias”.  In discrimination law, it has long been accepted that not being aware you hold a prejudice against a particular group does not mean that you don’t have such a prejudice or that, even unknowingly, you don’t act upon it.  So, you might not intend to make decisions which hinder diversity and you might reason that actually your decision-making is gender-neutral, race-neutral, etc.  But it probably isn’t.  Statistically, we may be getting worse at this, not better.  The Employers’ Network for Equality and Inclusion, ENEI, published a report this year, for example, which argued that unconscious bias against disabled people is higher now than it was before the Paralympics.  

As well as our associating groups of people with particular qualities (e.g. men with maths and science, women with arts and languages) McKinsey also highlights the relevance of “in-group favouritism” (preferring to work with people who are like us) and something called “outgroup homogenity bias,” where we tend to believe that our own “in-group” is more diverse than it actually is and that those outside it are more homogeneous, to the extent that they are all alike or even interchangeable. 

Both McKinsey and ENEI refer to evidence-based tools and techniques for reducing the impact of implicit or unconscious associations and bias on organisational behaviour and decisions, which can be used to increase the effectiveness of your diversity strategy or programme.  Two examples of this from McKinsey’s report are highlighting the positive achievements of peers and priming people with positive imagery.   Apparently when it comes to doing the things we don’t want to do (like paying our tax bills) the fact that everyone else is doing it is a far more powerful driver to get on with it than a hefty fine if we refuse.   It is easy to dismiss training on unconscious bias as the next step in some virtuous arms-race, to the point where employers have to train staff not to do something they don’t know they’re doing.  But the best way to stop the operation of unconscious bias is to make it conscious, to shine a light into the corner of the mind where these things lurk.  You can’t get rid of the bias (it may even be genetically programmed to some extent) but you can make it conscious. Where people are made to experience what others have personally or to examine and question them at key moments, their personal biases can be reduced – or at least their impact neutralised.