There’s tension between two things every business claims to want: cultural cohesion and employee diversity.
It’s natural to want to hire people who “fit” into the company’s existing culture. Economist Sara Ellison, the lead author of a Massachusetts Institute of Technology study on gender diversity, notes that homogeneous offices have more social capital because they tend toward cooperation.
Although homogeneity may make employees feel comfortable, Ellison’s study found it’s not necessarily correlated with workplace performance. A workplace evenly split along gender lines, for example, could be expected to generate 41 percent more revenue than an all-male or all-female office.
Despite how much team members might want to work alongside people like them, it’s not homogeneity that makes companies great: It’s variety.
Why Diversity Works
If diversity tends to fray social ties, why would it make companies stronger? According to Deloitte researcher Juliet Bourke, diverse teams are about 20 percent more innovative and manage risks 30 percent more efficient.
The answer isn’t that certain groups are better at certain things. An African-American developer isn’t necessarily faster or smarter than her white peers; she’s likely, however, to have unique perspectives to draw upon — ones the entire team can benefit from. She may have seen different use cases or learned coding in different settings, both of which would inform her perspective on user experience and functionality.
It’s this diversity of ideas that gives companies an advantage. Overly cooperative teams often miss out-of-the-box solutions, which are precisely what the market rewards. Culturally rich companies tend to hit on those ideas first because they tend to explore a range of alternatives.
Making a Cultural Fit Melting Pot
Of course, hiring for cultural diversity isn’t as simple as hiring for skin-deep diversity. Ask these questions to infuse your culture with fresh perspectives:
1. “What unique ways of thinking can this candidate offer to our team?”
Early in its life, management and technology consulting firm Credera grew primarily through team referrals. Its interviewers began asking themselves this question once they noticed the firm had hired a team that was too similar in its demographic attributes and cultural outlook. “As we look to the future, we’re being very strategic about hiring people who enhance our culture (not just fit it) and promote a diverse and inclusive work environment,” Justin Bell, the company’s president, explains.
Unique ways of thinking aren’t exclusive to creative workers. Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity grew out of a thought experiment in which he imagined workers falling from a building. Einstein viewed imagination as more important than knowledge because imagination describes what might someday be known rather than what’s already known. Credera asks its developers, strategists, and creatives to help it imagine new ways of working while they learn how the company currently operates.
2. “Are you willing to be wrong about your opinion on the world?”
When Yewande Ige, a global recruitment strategist at Houston-based ThoughtWorks, asks this question to interviewees, she treats it as an invitation. She considers it a chance for the candidate to challenge his or her own knowledge, assumptions, and sense of competence — a must in workplaces that encourage diversity of ideas. “Cultivating a diverse and inclusive organization means hiring people whose ability to connect with others is as important as their ability to improve themselves,” she points out.
If Ige hears a quick “yes,” she digs deeper. Is the candidate simply answering in the way he or she thinks Ige wants to hear or is the person demonstrating a true willingness to learn? Ige also receives a lot of “I’m not sure” and “I’ll have to think about that” responses, which she sees as either lacking self-awareness or an acknowledgment by the candidate that the urge to preserve one’s own worldview is difficult to overcome.
3. “Could you tell me about a time you lacked the skills or knowledge to complete an assignment?”
Although author and leadership expert Mark Murphy asks this question to determine how innovative a candidate is, the question is perhaps a better test of how interviewees work with others whose skills and backgrounds differ from their own. Of the answers Murphy shares, he’s most impressed with those that demonstrate collaboration with colleagues outside their immediate circle.
John Banovetz, 3M’s senior vice president for research and development, also views collaboration and diversity as inseparable drivers of innovation. Each year, his 3M Technical Forum hosts more than 1,000 events where 3M scientists can connect with those outside of their discipline for help on research challenges. “And by connecting people with different backgrounds and expertise who can offer diverse thinking and perspectives, we’re stimulating dialogues that wouldn’t take place if we all stayed within our silos,” Banowetz says.
Although the shift is far from over, companies are finally starting to see that culture isn’t a zero-sum game. Hires who think and act differently don’t detract from a company’s culture; they enrich it.
What’s On Their Mind?
But, determining what an interviewee could add to the culture isn’t as simple as noting the candidate’s gender or skin color. Although it may be true that hires from underserved populations tend to bring new ideas in the door, it’s also true that no demographic group has a monopoly on them. The only way to determine that is to take a look at applicants where it counts: their mind.
The ability to think differently can provide a company with a true competitive advantage. When you employ people who have varied experiences and backgrounds, these perspectives become part of the environment through how they work with others as well as their creativity and approach to problems.
That means looking for culture adds who offer deeper skills. Whether that’s someone who is neurodivergent and can leverage their autistic ability to see patterns and trends others cannot or its an introvert who is known to be highly productive and often more creative, it’s time to change the recruitment process away from the focus on general talent that only meet outdated criteria and build a talented team with unique capabilities.