We need to think about diversity in the workplace beyond gender, argues Alison Woolsey, Director of Diversity & Inclusion at Clayton Utz, a member of The Ethics Alliance.

In December 2017, Chartered Accountants Australia NZ, The Ethics Centre, Governance Institute of Australia, and Institute of Internal Auditors released a publication titled Managing Culture – A good practice guide.

Inspired by the discussion, I wondered how important the link between diversity and inclusion (“D&I”) and a sound culture in which ethical decision making is a given? Being able to point to clear evidence of a link could only advance the case for D&I in our organisations and help address any resistance to change.

A lot has changed in the Australian market. In spite of, and perhaps because of, the Hayne Royal Commission and its fallout, the connection is worth exploring. It’s a topic that has been investigated by others in the past – certainly with a gender diversity focus. For example:

  • Professor Robert Wood of the University of Melbourne’s Centre for Ethical Leadership, summarised several articles and studies linking more women on boards and in senior management with improved risk management and corporate governance
  • The above paper references a study which found Fortune 500 companies with a higher percentage of women on their board of directors were more likely to be on Ethisphere Institute’s list of the World’s Most Ethical Companies.
  • ‘The Lehman Sisters Hypothesis’, a study that concludes empirical literature backs the claim “more gender diversity in finance, and particularly at the top would help to reduce some of the behavioural drivers behind the crises”.

A little less on point, but worth noting as it often comes up in gender diversity discussions, is John Gerzema and Michael D’Antonio’s 2013 book, The Athena Doctrine: How Women (and the Men Who Think Like Them) Will Rule the Future. It offered a global survey of 64,000 people and revealed that two thirds felt the “world would be a better place if men thought more like women”.

What I would like to focus on here, however, are two key and interrelated theses around diversity and inclusion and their role in driving workplace culture:

  1. Diverse teams drive better decision making.
  2. Inclusive workplaces inspire better team performance (as well as employee satisfaction, success and security).

If these theses hold true (and I consider each in more detail below), the unavoidable conclusion could be that D&I helps shape an organisation’s culture for the better, and will be increasingly valued – and even demanded – by boards and investors as corporate governance rules are strengthened and companies’ social licences to operate come under increased scrutiny.

Diversity is a trigger for better decision making

Much is written about the “value of diverse teams” and “diversity of thinking”. Many leaders and organisations use the expressions liberally when promoting their diversity policies. But do we really understand what these expressions mean?

In her book, Which Two Heads Are Better Than One, Australian author Juliet Bourke acknowledges the collective intelligence that diverse teams can offer, but debunks any theory that it’s easy to achieve through simple gender balance and diversity of background.

Bourke introduces several enablers of diversity of thinking. These include the composition of any group and the process they use to think and debate. Gender balance in a group, she says, “promotes psychological safety and more conversational turn-taking, thereby encouraging people to speak up, offer their views, and elaborate on the ideas of others”. Racial diversity “triggers curiosity, causing people to ask more questions, make fewer assumptions, listen more closely, and process information more deeply”. Age and geographic location also play a role.

In addition to this, we need to consider more direct factors – firstly, diversity of approach to problem solving. Bourke identifies six key individual approaches to problem solving but notes we tend to focus on two in particular. She says that by deliberately taking a more balanced approach, groups report they reduced blind spots and “were able to develop more robust solution” and moreover “followers report greater faith in the ultimate solution”.

The second direct influence on diversity of thinking comes from the mix of functional roles such as general counsel, chief risk officer, and chief HR officer. These executive positions expose members to different domains of knowledge and social networks, Bourke says.

This theory challenges the simplicity of the proposition that having women in a group mitigates risk. Australian academic Cordelia Fine similarly dismisses the existence of any gender gap in risk taking in her 2016 book, Testosterone Rex. So too does Elizabeth Sheedy, who concludes in a 2017 study that senior female bankers don’t conform to stereotypes and are just as ready to take risks.

This rich research linking gender diversity and improved business performance suggests organisations also need to consider a wider range of diversity forms beyond women to men ratios. When you begin to grasp the complexity of optimal diversity, you begin to realise the opportunities and value that teams can deliver or destroy.

Inclusion and workplace performance

Achieving the ideal diversity mix in any group is no mean feat. However, a group can still underperform if its members do not feel included.

According to the Diversity Council of Australia, inclusion occurs when a mix of people are respected, connected, progressing, and contributing to organisational success. Deloitte’s HR research body, Bersin, shows organisations with inclusive cultures are six times more likely to be innovative, anticipate change, and respond effectively, and twice as likely to meet or exceed financial targets.

We see evidence that inclusion is associated with being treated fairly and respectfully, being valued for one’s uniqueness and sensing group belonging. The Deloitte Inclusion Maturity Model identifies the highest level of inclusion as being when people report feeling both psychologically safe and inspired to do their best work. At a more granular level, this is about people feeling (or leaders encouraging people to feel) they can contribute in a meeting, have a voice in decisions affecting them, and can disagree or challenge group decisions.

Leaders are instrumental in creating a culture of inclusion. Diversity commentators and practitioners largely agree on a common set of leadership capabilities including being collaborative, accountable, open and curious, a champion of diversity, and relational.  A big piece in the discussion on inclusive leadership is the importance of counteracting biases and assumptions in decision making. In recent years, not only have we seen a growing level of awareness of unconscious biases but also a push to explore practical ways (policies, processes and structures) to mitigate against them.

Positive traits of an inclusive leader include being particularly mindful of personal and cultural biases like confirmation bias and groupthink. Juliet Bourke also highlights the importance of leaders being cognisant of the situations and factors such as time pressures and fatigue which can cause them to be vulnerable to such biases.

As several authors have argued, there was potential for diversity of thinking and good decision making in the Enron board, but the decisions “concerned matters of high complexity, difficulty and moral uncertainty” and ultimately it succumbed to groupthink, says Bourke.

Does diversity and inclusion lead to sound culture?

If we have ideal diversity in a team and have cultivated inclusion through good leadership, does a sound organisational culture necessarily follow?

Logically, yes. We’ve canvassed positive outcomes such as good decision making, effective team work, psychological safety, and innovation. We’ve considered the impact of leaders being more open and curious, conscious of biases, and accountable. In both the Managing Culture paper and APRA’s report on the Commonwealth Bank, we see references to the need for improved behaviours of boards and senior leadership along the lines of these themes. If D&I doesn’t at least influence ethical behaviour or underpin the concept of an ethical framework, it would be easy to argue inclusive leadership can facilitate embedding an ethical framework.

McKinsey in its 2018 update suggests that, for many companies, D&I is a “matter of license to operate”. This is a theme at the heart of proposed changes to the ASX Corporate Governance Council’s Principles and Recommendations. In a substantial redraft of principle 3, the current words of “act ethically and responsibly” become “instil and continually reinforce a culture across the organisation of acting lawfully, ethically and in a socially responsible manner”. The ASX says that “preserving an entity’s social licence to operate requires the board and management of a listed entity to have regard to the views and interests of a broader range of stakeholders than just its security holders, including employees”. It goes on to suggest this may include, by way of example, “offering employment to people with disability or from socially disadvantaged groups in society”.

On one view this could be saying good culture drives greater levels of diversity, and not vice versa. What’s interesting though is the earlier editions of the Principles and Recommendations also included diversity under principle 3. It was then relocated in 2014 to Principle 1: “lay solid foundations for management and oversight”. In my view, D&I sits comfortably under both principles – a recognition of it being business critical but also critical for ‘good’ or ‘right’ decisions.

More reflection on the point may be required but I think investors and our regulators should care about what organisations are doing to make D&I a priority in the way they conduct business and as employers. D&I may be an undervalued lever to promote positive change in business behaviours and workplace cultures in Australia. The world’s largest asset manager BlackRock has identified board diversity as a “stewardship priority”. Larry Fink recently wrote in his annual letter to CEOs:

“We also will continue to emphasize the importance of a diverse board. Boards with a diverse mix of genders, ethnicities, career experiences, and ways of thinking have, as a result, a more diverse and aware mindset. They are less likely to succumb to groupthink or miss new threats to a company’s business model. And they are better able to identify opportunities that promote long-term growth.” – Larry Fink

It makes sense to continue to make the case for diversity and inclusion as being a driver of positive change – for business, and for the community.

Alison Woolsey is director of Diversity & Inclusion at Clayton Utz, a member of The Ethics Alliance.

This article was originally written for The Ethics Alliance. Find out more about this corporate membership program. Already a member? Log in to the membership portal for more content and tools here.