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Inclusion and Diversity Best Practice: How Diversity Powers Innovation

December 5, 2011 - 0 Comments

We read a lot about how diversity powers innovation but the other day I was on a call where I saw this with my own eyes. Cisco’s Global Inclusion and Diversity team have introduced monthly meetings for their Ambassadors called “Diverse Conversations” whereby they take a very real I&D topic and encourage the group to discuss.

The theme of Thursday’s call was “Managing across Cultures” and the objective was to explore different perspectives on managing across cultures and gain insights on how to handle challenging situations. The host presented us with 3 hypothetical scenarios and we shared our views on how we would (re)act in each scenario. Alongside our Ambassadors, we had 3 panellists who all had experience in managing diverse teams in the past and thereby could help ignite the conversation.

Scenario 1:

The manager on a team learns that an employee may be gay. Team members have quietly expressed concern about how to engage the employee. The manager is worried because it is affect team dynamics and the team is working on a critical project that requires full collaboration.

What do you do?

a)     Meet 1:1 with the employee to discuss how s/he would like to hand the situation, it’s his or her decision

b)     Suggest a team meeting to discuss team dynamics and collaboration

c)     Do nothing, it should not be addressed

d)     Other? (Be ready to share)

 The Results

 The host first shared the results of the poll and interesting Option B (suggest a team meeting) was the most popular option among the audience.

One of our panellists began the discussion by sharing that when he was a younger manager he had a team member go through a full gender change which had a dramatic impact on the team. The host kindly summed up what the panellist had said to make sure everyone on the call had heard what he had said but unfortunately the host’s summary was “Not only did <name> learn his team member was gay, but was a transgender – they went from one gender to another”. Rightly so this provoked a reaction from a couple of members on the call that there is a fundamentally difference between being gay – meaning attracted to the same sex – and transgender – a person appearing or attempting to be a member of the opposite sex. This was a really important point to make because it shows how easy we can jump to certain conclusions – intentional or unintentional.

Going back to the panellist, when he was a younger manager he chose option A. When he sat down with the individual he thought they would want to hide from the situation and ignore it, but instead they were very open about why they were doing it and also wanted to be very open with the rest of the team. This presented another challenge for the manager because the other team members were very shocked at the individual’s openness and this became a very uncomfortable conversation for them. This moved the discussion to how do you have to manage the rest of the team through that scenario and how do you use resources to help with the education and broader discussion with the team.

The discussion took a turn when another member of the audience looked at the question in another way. After confirming that in Option A the term “employee” was referring to the person who was gay (as opposed to the person who has the concern) he argued that if we substituted the word gay for Muslim, Black or Asian, we would be bringing someone into our office to say “some of your co-workers really have a problem because you are Asian”. This could do a lot of damage, especially to that employee’s self esteem and their sense of value on the team. So instead, he chose Option B – to meet with the other employees who were having the concern, find out why they felt it was affecting the team dynamics and use resources to help those people get past the issues they have.

A female panellist jumped in and offered her perspective. When she first read the question she focussed on the word ‘may’, meaning that we aren’t sure whether this employee is gay or not. She also raised the point that if her team was working on a particular project, sexual orientation should be irrelevant. And her suggestion to the group that managers should organise a meeting with everybody where we could have some ice-breakers and give that employee the space and opportunity to, if they desire, talk about their relationship or their private life if they have it and in doing so, we are not singling the employee out and instead we are having social discussion with the whole team.

Building on the point around the word ‘may’, another member of the audience said, quite simply, if it was the individual who was having the problem she would speak to the employee, if it was the team who had the concern she would speak to the team.

The discussion then came back to the first panellists who wanted to clarify that, in his opinion, the 1:1 is not to sit down with the individual and say we have a problem or a problem connected with you, it is to some extent validate what a situation may be and how that person may perceives the situation. He also raised the point that there is also a risk of launching into a team meeting where you are surfacing a problem that may not be around.

What was really interesting about this call was not only the diversity in the audience’s answers but also how many people challenged the question – diversity at its rawness. And by the end of the meeting, the most popular answer had moved from answer B to answer “D – Other”. And I think that is significant in itself because the word ‘Other’ suggests that there is a new and innovative solution to the problem.

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