Most of the time “diversity” is a code word for adding women or minorities to an organization.  But that is only one way to think about diversity, and it really isn’t the most important.  To excel you need diversity in thinking.  And far too often, we try to do just the opposite.

Mythbusters” was a television series that ran 14 seasons across 12 years.  The thesis was to test all kinds of things people felt were facts, from historical claims to urban legends, with sound engineering approaches to see if the beliefs were factually accurate – or if they were myths.  The show’s ability to bust, or prove, these myths made it a great success.

Workplace DiversityThe show was led by 2 engineers who worked together on the tests and props.  Interestingly, these two fellows really didn’t like each other.  Despite knowing each other for 20 years, and working side-by-side for 12, they never once ate a meal together alone, or joined in a social outing.  And very often they disagreed on many aspects of the show.  They often stepped on each others toes, and they butted heads on multiple issues.  Here’s their own words:

“We get on each other’s nerves and everything all the time, but whenever that happens, we say so and we deal with it and move on,” he explained. “There are times that we really dislike dealing with each other, but we make it work.”

The pair honestly believed it is their differences which made the show great.  They challenged each other continuously to determine how to ask the right questions, and perform the right tests, and interpret the results.  It was because they were so different that they were so successful.  Individually each was good.  But together they were great.  It was because they were of different minds that they pushed each other to the highest standards, never had an integrity problem, and achieved remarkable success.

Yet, think about how often we select people for exactly the opposite reason. Think about “knock-out” comments and questions you’ve heard that were used to keep from increasing the diversity:

  • I wouldn’t want to eat lunch with that person, so why would I want to work with them?
  • We find that people with engineering (or chemical, or fine arts, etc.) backgrounds do well here.  Others don’t.
  • We like to hire people from state (or Ivy League, etc) colleges because they fit in best
  • We always hire for industry knowledge.  We don’t want to be a training ground for the basics in how our industry works
  • Results are not as important as how they were obtained – we have to be sure this person fits our culture
  • Directors on our Board need to be able to get along or the Board cannot be effective
  • If you weren’t trained in our industry, how could you be helpful?
  • We often find that the best/top graduates are unable to fit into our culture
  • We don’t need lots of ideas, or challenges. We need people that can execute our direction
  • He gets things done, but he’s too rough around the edges to hire (or promote.)  If he leaves he’ll be someone else’s problem.

In 2011 I wrote in Forbes “Why Steve Jobs Couldn’t Find a Job Today.” The column pointed out that hiring practices are designed for the lowest common denominator, not the best person to do a job.  Personalities like Steve Jobs would be washed out of almost any hiring evaluation because he was too opinionated, and there would be concerns he would cause too much tension between workers, and be too challenging for his superiors.

Simply put, we are biased to hire people that think like us.  It makes us comfortable. Yet, it is a myth that homogeneous groups, or cultures, are the best performing.  It is the melding of diverse ways of thinking, and doing, that leads to the best solutions.  It is the disagreement, the arguing, the contention, the challenging and the uncomfortableness that leads to better performance.  It leads to working better, and smarter, to see if your assumptions, ideas and actions can perform better than your challengers.  And it leads to breakthroughs as challenges force us to think differently when solving problems, and thus developing new combinations and approaches that yield superior returns.

What should we do to hire better, and develop better talent that produces superior results?

  1. Put results and accomplishments ahead of culture or fit.  Those who succeed usually keep succeeding, and we need to build on those skills for everyone to learn how to perform better
  2. Don’t let ego into decisions or discussions.  Too many bad decisions are made because someone finds their assumptions or beliefs challenged, and thus they let “hurt feelings” keep them from listening and considering alternatives.
  3. Set goals, not process.  Tell someone what they need to accomplish, and not how they should do it. If how someone accomplishes their goals offends you, think about your own assumptions rather than attacking the other person.  There can be no creativity if the process is controlled.
  4. Set big goals, and avoid the desire to set a lot of small goals.  When you break down the big goal into sub-goals you effectively kill alternative approaches – approaches that might not apply to these sub-goals.  In other words, make sure the big objective is front and center, then “don’t sweat the small stuff.”
  5. Reward people for thinking differently – and be very careful to not punish them.  It is easy to scoff at an idea that sounds foreign, and in doing so kill new ideas.  Often it’s not what they don’t know that is material, but rather what you don’t know that is most important.
  6. Be blind to gender, skin color, historical ancestry, religion and all other elements of background.  Don’t favor any background, nor disfavor another.  This doesn’t mean white men are the only ones who need to be aware.  It is extremely easy for what we may call any minority to favor that minority.  Assumptions linked to physical attributes and history run deep, and are hard to remove from our bias.  But it is not these historical physical and educational elements that matter, it is how people think that matters – and the results they achieve.