The Real Value Of Diversity In Business: What Is It?
DEI | HR | LEADERSHIP | VALUE | INNOVATION | MEANING
Diversity In Business: The Real Value Is Not Representation, It's Value Creation
By Dr. Martina Olbert
May 24, 2022
In this new article, I explore how our wrong and outdated thinking about corporate diversity is stopping us from making real progress – both in business and in society – and what we can do to fix it to help organizations unlock the immense power of diversity as an engine for value creation and growth.
A lot has been said and written about Diversity and Inclusion in business over the past decade. However, still to this day when we hear about diversity, what we hear about most often is the need for a better and more effective social representation. The topic of diversity in business has almost entirely become synonymous with race, gender, age and organizational inclusivity. Yes, this is important as any business is a part of society and as such should reflect it. But this is only the starting point of the Diversity conversation – it is the means to the end goal, not the end goal in and of itself.
The true value of Diversity in business is in being the engine for value creation and meaningful growth. The true purpose of diversity in business is the diversification of value. This means that diversity is not just about the input, but more importantly the output. The diverse output creates a richer, deeper and more socially representative value of the business in the world – one that people want to identify with in their lives. This is the real competitive advantage that businesses have over each other: using diversity constructively to create more meaningful value that elevates people's lives.
This piece takes a deeper look at diversity and explores how our misleading and often inaccurate thinking about Diversity in business is costing us the future value that we don't create today. This is the value that can future-proof organizations and its absence is thus stopping us from real social progress. It offers a new perspective on what we can do to fix this meaning gap and how we can rewire our outdated mindsets to unleash the true creative power of diversity in business. What we cannot think we cannot change. This article will help you see and think about diversity differently.
The problem with DEI at organizations today
Most organizations today are still getting the Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) agenda wrong. The issue with diversity – and why organizations are not being as successful at effectively tackling this subject as they could be – is in the distorted perception and an incorrect framing of what diversity in business actually means. Even though diversity is an incredibly important topic in business, when addressed wrong it falls flat and fails to generate the positive results that it could bring. It can also create new difficulties beyond the scope of the issues that it addresses.
This is because diversity in business today is being addressed as an ideological and social problem – that it isn’t, at least not for businesses – instead of a cultural and business problem that it is. When you make a problem that pertains to the culture of an organization and its business results (effectiveness) into being a social problem of a proportional representation and a current political ideology, you can see why business leaders are not being as effective at achieving true diversity as they could be. They are simply solving the wrong problem, or rather solving the right and important problem in the wrong way that isn’t the core of their issue.
"The real problem with the DEI initiative in many organizations today is a distorted view and an inaccurate understanding of what diversity in business actually means and what it is supposed to do for the company."
Wrong way of thinking hinders our progress in business
Business organizations aren’t the vehicles of social engineering – their job isn’t to create a proportional representation of the entire society. Sure, homogenization of talent leads to a bland and unified view of the world which doesn’t allow a business to innovate and stay nimble to understand what is happening in society and respond in relevant ways. Such a business will be soon overrun by a competitor with a bigger aperture who can see more and therefore knows more. But the contrary is also true: no amount of hiring racially, ethnically, gender, age or otherwise diverse people will make your organization more successful and more diverse by default if you don’t know what to do with them and what your desired outcome is for having all this new diversity.
Businesses are not governments – their job isn’t to proportionally represent all voices in society to remain balanced and impartial. That is the job of public officials in a democracy. The job of a business is to create value. So when you think about diversity in business what you need to think about is why you are doing it, what it means to you (to your organization) and what it is that you want to achieve through diversity.
"Businesses are not governments – their job isn’t to proportionally represent all voices in society to remain balanced and impartial. That is the job of public officials. The job of a business is to create value."
"Having diversity" or "Being diverse"?
The goal of diversity in business for any organization is not to “have diversity” but to “be diverse”. This is a small nuance but with a big difference in results. Having diversity means that the organization inaccurately assumes that the more different people it hires, the more diverse it will become. What this usually leads to is fragmentation into smaller groups of people who are alike and have things in common (usually their diversity) so that they feel more comfortable and less ostracized. This approach doesn’t automatically result in being more diverse as an organization.
To be more diverse as an organization requires that you think about diversity holistically. If I want my organization to be more diverse as an outcome, what are the steps that I need to take to get there? What does our organization being more diverse look like? You are not building a more diverse organization. What you are building is your organization being more diverse. The goal isn’t diversity, the goal is prosperity. This means that the culture has to change first to be able to hold this new potential and accommodate more diversity. The DEI leaders and C Suite need to get crystal clear on what their own take on diversity is, what it looks like and what the vision is.
"You are not building a more diverse organization – a matrix for an equal social representation. What you are building is your organization being more diverse – enriching, welcoming, open to learning, inspiring, innovative, and creative. The goal isn't diversity, the goal is prosperity."
The purpose and the meaning of diversity
Before you start hiring for diversity, the two most important things you need to realize about diversity as a leader are the purpose and the meaning of diversity – not socially as a concept, but practically for you and your organization. For every organization, diversity can mean and undoubtedly will mean something else. The job of your organization is to determine what diversity means for you – for your line of business – and how you want to use it as a strategic vehicle for value creation and growth.
The purpose of diversity in business is about what diversity helps you achieve as a strategic instrument and as a key function of your business. What do you want to do with this greater diversity of people and why do you want to hire more diverse talent, meaning outside of the social representation agenda? What is it that you want to achieve at your organization – and therefore how diverse talent do you need to hire and why to be able to deliver on this vision and mission that you have? You need to be clear on this before starting the hiring process and setting your business targets.
The meaning of diversity in business is about what diversity means to you. This can differ greatly from organization to organization: culturally, nation wise, industry-wise, based on your location etc. What does diversity mean in your business and for your organization? What does diversity look like for the needs that your company has? Is it about race, age, gender, or a different viewpoint? Or something else altogether?
Is it the unique skills that you need to innovate and grow your business? A generalist who can help you see your business holistically? More intuitive people to see what you are missing? People with huge creative abilities who can help you reimagine your business entirely? Who is it that you need to hire to create this more diverse value? That should be the question that you ask yourself first. Hiring diverse people only to give them the same tasks and the same jobs inevitably leads to mutual frustration.
"Before hiring for diversity, you need to get crystal clear on two things: the purpose and the meaning of diversity for you. Purpose: What is it you want to achieve as an organization through hiring for more diversity? Meaning: What does diversity mean to you and your business? What are the needs that your company has to create a more diverse value?"
Diversity is not a monolith; diversity is diverse
Diversity in business is not a monolith: it is not a singular approach to hiring different people and checking different boxes. Diversity is a diverse concept on its own. For every organization, diversity can mean and undoubtedly will mean something else. If you are a multinational conglomerate based in a predominantly white conservative area, e.g. in the United States, you need to think realistically about whom you want to attract and why. Why is it important to your business to attract racially diverse talent? Is it predominantly about politics, or can it actually create a substantially different or more culturally relevant value in the industry that you are in? Not every organization is going to be appealing to all potential talent and that is okay. That is what it should be – that is respecting people’s values and free will to work wherever they like.
But if your organization is not aligned with the values and visions of the diverse people it wants to attract – be it ethnic, gender or age groups, you have a problem. The nature of the problem, however, is different than you might think. This isn't a diversity problem. The problem is irrelevance. If it is important to your organization to attract young and racially diverse talent – with age for the sense of continuity and with the race for the ability to speak and cater to new customer audiences, then you will have to rethink your bottom line. Hiring for diversity cannot solve a lack of diversity at the core of your business. Meaning, having more diverse people is not going to remedy an undifferentiated line of products, an outdated vision, an unappealing mission, and culturally irrelevant brand communication. Your brand is also your hiring tool.
"Hiring for diversity cannot solve a lack of diversity at the core of your business. If it is important to your organization to attract young and racially diverse talent, then you will have to rethink your bottom line."
Attracting new and hard-to-get diverse talent
If you want to attract new people who would normally not come to your organization and apply for a job – most likely because your company is not even on their radar as a potentially relevant employer – you need to learn to speak their language. You need to communicate to these new and diverse audiences through what they care about: their own values, beliefs, cultural heritage, unique experiences, identity, and sense of self.
You have two choices on how you can do this: you can either do different things or do things differently. Doing different things means creating new forms of value – human, social, cultural, economic or environmental, with new products, services, experiences and engagements that are interesting to diverse people so that they want to be a part of your company. Doing things differently means making changes to how you work as an organization: what culture you have, if it feels enjoyable for them to work there, if they feel respected and if it reflects and accommodates their values and beliefs.
Diversity in business really is a strategic vehicle for something else: For a richer and more vibrant culture that embraces the humanity of its workers. For a more diverse value that an organization is able now to create thanks to having more diverse talent. For a more insightful and broader view of the world so that your business can spot new ideas in culture and different communities and proactively create a new value that these diverse people want and need. The role of diversity for any organization is simply to be a vital part of human life – of our shared human experience. That’s it.
"If you want to attract more diverse people to your organization, you need to speak their language, respect their values, accommodate their beliefs and honor their life experience so that they can produce a new kind of more diverse value that will future-proof your business."
Our skewed perspective leads to "fake diversity"
Trying to solve the issue of Diversity in business as a social and ideological problem leads to trouble. Instead of creating more diversity, it creates "fake diversity": an illusion that the organization is now diverse without the reality supporting it.
Fake diversity looks like diversity on the surface because it mimics the physiological differences between people, but on a closer inspection, it isn't diverse at all. It doesn't produce any real diversity on the inside of an organization. It only hires bodies but still reinforces the same culture, the same mindset, the same principles, the same mental programs, the same prejudices, and therefore replicates the same limitations.
You cannot move the culture and a business forward when the operating system remains the same. How can the same mental and psychological settings produce different results? Of course, they can't. We cannot expect real change from solutions that aren't systemic. That is why we need to change how we think about diversity to help organizations achieve more actionable results. If the current corporate take on diversity often remains on the surface level while true diversity happens on the inside, it is also important to explain what the former is and what it leads to.
The surface level isn't diversity – it is a democratic representation of people aimed to create a more proportional reflection of our society. That isn’t diversity – that is only one half of the diversity equation, only an A to a B. Yes, it is important but without the internal factor, it doesn't produce any real business results for the organization apart from an increased gender and racial visibility. In other words, it creates the mimicry of change instead of being an actual vehicle of business change and social progress. Having the illusion of diversity is dangerous because it then stops real diversity from ever happening since organizations falsely believe that they already have one. This makes the potential future value that diversity can bring to organizations unrealized.
"Fake diversity creates the mimicry of change instead of being an actual vehicle of business change and social progress. This is dangerous because it stops real diversity from ever happening since organizations falsely believe that they already have one. This makes real diversity unrealized."
We cannot unite people by dividing them
This magnifies the problem and creates a new one. It treats humanity as something that is supposed to be clustered and fit into neatly pre-selected boxes: white, black, Hispanic, other, old, young, LGBT, religious, non-religious, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, spiritual, atheist, the list goes on. Do you see what’s wrong with this? By mimicking equal opportunity we are only spinning the downward spiral of segregation. The very business function (DEI) that is supposed to bring us closer is pulling us further apart.
Our view of diversity serves to emphasize differences instead of uniting people, celebrating their commonalities and ways they can work together for a common good. This leads to tokenism, social quotas, diversity metrics and the belief that the more represented society we have on the inside of an organization the more well-rounded we are as a business. But this simply isn’t true. That is just the illusion of diversity.
The goal isn’t to reverse-engineer diversity to fit the corporate agenda. The goal is for the organization to come outside into the world and become a vital part of the culture and a trusted partner to diverse communities – by supporting them to improve people’s lives where they live, where they have their communities and are happy so they can thrive together and grow new opportunities for a better future. This is what it means to be a force for good and meaningful social growth.
Instead of checking diversity boxes, organizations need to start using the wealth of multiculturalism and different human and cultural experiences across the markets in which they operate to create a new kind of humanistic value: by supporting diverse communities, celebrating people’s experiences and growing new economies.
"The goal isn’t to reverse-engineer diversity to fit the corporate agenda. The goal is for the corporation to come outside into the world and become a vital part of the culture and a trusted partner to diverse communities."
True Diversity: What is it?
True diversity is diversity both on the outside and on the inside: both physical and cognitive. Without the internal factor – the diversity of values, different ways of thinking and looking at the world, different beliefs, mindsets, different ways of problem-solving, and people's MOs – corporate diversity stands the risk of becoming just a carefully orchestrated sameness. Just another tool that seemingly creates human value but in reality only serves internal politics. This would be a shame because the true value of Diversity for business organizations is elsewhere. It is not only in reflecting the society it is a part of – it is in the immense value of ideas that diverse people can bring to the table because they look at the world in radically different ways.
Such a carefully curated image spanning the entirety of our lived human experience – from the male and female point of view, from the white point of view, people of colour, young people, the middle generation and the older generation, different belief systems and preferences – gives any organization such a huge tapestry of input to work with that the output the organization creates can make a real difference in the world and act as a catalyst of a large-scale social, cultural and economic change.
What the diverse representation does at its best is bring in a deeper and more diverse understanding of the world and the organization's place in it. This is what businesses should focus on first and foremost: hiring for diversity as an instrument and a business function of cognitive diversity. This, in the long term, can contribute to meaningful and sustainable growth for the organization and its surroundings.
When used in this way – constructively, as a strategic business tool and not as a political agenda – Diversity in business can truly advance the world because it directly feeds into creativity, innovation, and cultural relevance, all of which future-proof the business and allow it to create a fundamentally different and more humanistic value. This is how we can use commerce to make the world a better place – through understanding the real meaning of diversity and its purpose in business.
Diversity understood in such an expansive and humanistic way can lead to creating a truly Human Organization that reflects and respects the fundamental truth: people are not resources but human beings with a creative potential that remains unexpressed and when tapped into leads directly to exponential business growth.
"True diversity is both physical and cognitive. Without the internal cognitive factor, corporate diversity stands the risk of becoming just a carefully orchestrated sameness. The true value of diversity in business is in the immense value of ideas that diverse people can bring to the table because they look at the world in radically different ways."
Preoccupation with the physical hinders true diversity
What often stops any real change from happening is our current level of perception – consciousness. This informs how we think about any given situation, what we see as being possible and how well we are equipped to think about new concepts and ideas, mostly based on our past level of experience.
In Western society, we have a stubborn preoccupation with everything physical, solid, visible, and tangible. But what is humanity? It is not just what you see, but most importantly how you see. How we see things and the world around us gives us meaning. We cannot see this meaning, but it structures the internal relationships between everything that we can see and affects how we experience the world.
To create more meaningful relationships at organizations, we need to shift our focus more towards the intangible things in life: viewpoints, beliefs, values, needs, ideas, desires, and cognitive differences that have the power to uproot our current limited thinking and lead us somewhere new where diversity has a different role in business.
We need to embrace the new in business – new ideas, creativity, imagination, curiosity, different views, mindsets, experiencing and understanding the world, different ways of thinking and leadership, insight, real understanding, and empathy. These things are not solid and yet impact new ways in which things take shape, how we innovate, how we create value and the difference we can make in the world.
Without enriching what we do and how we do things in business with these intangible qualities all we are doing is creating new prescriptive policies. And if we prescribe things, cultures cannot flourish. Cultures thrive because they take shape organically through the interaction between people, their collaboration and learning from their differences and life experiences, not through policies.
The intangibles are everything that makes a business a business in the first place. It is because everything that we see around us today – everything that is now solid, physical and tangible – was once an idea in somebody else's mind. So as far as diversity goes, we should understand that diversity is not a mere representation tool. We need to start seeing diversity as a strategic asset for organizations to create value.
"The true value of a business is in the ideas it disseminates, the values it inspires, the value it delivers and the meaning it adds to people’s lives. We need to start seeing diversity not as a mere representation tool, but as a strategic asset for organizations to create new and diverse value."
For true diversity, we need a new perception of business
True diversity is a value creation engine for any business: it taps into a wide pool of talent it was able to cultivate to bring diversity from the inside of the organization to the outside. It aims to hire for diversity only to then adapt itself to its people and the ways that they see the world – instead of adapting the people to the organization. For this to happen in reality, however, we need to cultivate a new perception of how we understand organizations, how they function and what they are set out to do.
To adopt diversity for the sheer social and creative power it can generate for any business, we need to start seeing organizations not as static and immovable entities weighted down by legacy and ways business has always been done, but as dynamic ecosystems of value and human potential that together lead to business growth.
The job of a business is therefore not to be a static entity set in its own ways and devoted to carrying out its legacy that only hires people as human resources – to fit its outdated agenda. It means precisely the opposite: to hire people for their diverse human and creative potential and then use the business as a platform to champion and celebrate human creativity and the value that it can create for the business.
With the old business ideology in mind, it is somewhat of a miracle that such organizations are still around and have yet not been deemed obsolete. This, however, is only a question of time. The future of business lies in creating nimble and highly adaptive systems that are context-responsive and thrive on change – and most importantly treat people as diverse and creative human beings that they are.
"True diversity is a value creation engine for any business. This means hiring people for their diverse human and creative potential and then using the business as a platform to champion and celebrate human creativity and the value that it can create for the business."
The Human Organization: A highly adaptive humanistic business that celebrates people to create diverse value
The Human Organization is the organization of the future. In such an organization, you no longer talk about Diversity nor is Diversity an issue. This organization has made the mental leap from diversity to humanity. Diversity is only an agenda – only an issue – at an organization that lacks the understanding of humanity on a systemic level. If you embrace humanity at your organization, diversity happens naturally as a by-product of that mindset change. Diversity is naturally represented in an increased sense of humanity because you no longer operate from separation consciousness.
An organization that embraces humanity on a systemic level as a core value acts as a direct reflection of its people and all the knowledge, ideas, viewpoints, beliefs, and the sheer unexpressed human potential that they bring into the business every day when they go to work. It doesn't push the organizational agenda down onto its people, but rather creates the safety net and loose processes to promote creative collaboration. Instead of controlling people, it lets people thrive by letting them express their own diversity. This authentic human expression makes diversity flourish which, in turn, feeds the value creation process. This way, diversity becomes a win-win scenario.
Such an organization would have a set of objectives, shared vision, purpose (a reason for being), and meaning as a core organizing principle and then give people the autonomy to solve problems and create new value using the best of what they can uniquely bring to the table – their minds, their hearts, their ways of seeing and being present in the world, and the wisdom and lessons of their life experiences. This means that the humanity of people is an integral part of the value the organization creates.
An organization managed as a human organism would be naturally diverse and inclusive, with all of its potential directed not inward of the organization to sustain itself, but outward to benefit the people it serves and the planet. Its KPIs would be linked directly to maximizing other people's wellbeing, welfare and happiness by allowing them to be themselves and rewarding them for being who they are.
"The Human Organization is diverse by default because it recognizes humanity as its core value and allows people to be who they are."
The Great Resignation or Great Awakening?
The opposite of this future humanistic practice leads to serious problems further down the line. When you hire people for diversity and then punish them for being different, their plurality of opinions and different ways of working, and score them all using the same exact metrics, your diversity efforts are largely counterproductive. Then it really doesn't matter who is working for you. Because it's your culture and legacy beliefs that are making your people look, think and feel all the same. This makes people feel small and doubt their value and self-worth as if there was something wrong with them for not fitting into your organization's criteria. And when you get to this point, it will be detrimental to the health of your business because your very culture – your internal operation system – is preventing you from growing and achieving your future goals.
All of this great diverse human potential then goes to waste... People leave toxic cultures behind being traumatized by the experience of workplaces that were not ready for them and couldn't embrace them for who they are – first hiring them for being different only to force them to become the same. And on the other end, organizations are constantly haemorrhaging money by replacing people in hopes of getting the right talent that they so desperately need to stay. Something they wouldn't have to do and could avoid altogether were they more human-centric and treated people with respect.
This is obviously a very unfortunate situation but one that happens all the time. At the core of it is a misunderstanding of what real diversity is, what its business function is, what it does, what it looks like, and most importantly why your organization should be diverse. Jumping on the bandwagon of culture without understanding what it is you want to achieve through diversity creates more harm than good. It is not fair to the people that you hire, and in a long run, it is not fair to your organization either.
This is what's behind the current Great Resignation movement. People are awakening to the truth of their existence and want to work with other people who respect them and value them for who they are and for the work and value that they bring with them. They want to feel respected, valued, safe, and fully expressed. What started as a primal scream and the need for a better work-life balance after the COVID-19 pandemic will now continue as a wave throughout our society and will lead to a radical rethinking of how businesses operate, how organizations hire and how they treat their employees.
"The goal of hiring for diversity is to adapt the organization to the people and their ways of seeing and experiencing the world instead of adapting the people to the organization to make them all the same. People want to work where they feel respected, valued, safe, and fully expressed."
Let's create a more diverse future for business
My hope is that I was able to reframe your understanding of diversity in this article and expand your view of diversity in business and why it is important as a strategic business function. That is, not just as a social representation tool but more importantly as an engine for more diversified value creation that can future-proof your organization by an increased sense of humanity, understanding, empathy, insight, viewpoints, lived experiences, creativity, innovation, and human potential.
The future chapter is now up to you. The next time you think about diversity (DEI) in business: when you create a diversity strategy at your organization, when you run an internal briefing, when you think about whom to hire, when you think about updating your HR and internal culture policy, when you organize a conference on corporate diversity and its role in the future of business and organizations, think about this:
Diversity is not a monolith. The meaning of diversity itself is very diverse.
True diversity is multi-faceted. It goes beyond just Physical Diversity. It concerns also the Diversity of the Mind and Human Experience. Diversity in business pertains to Cognitive Diversity as much as Physical Diversity.
True diversity is the diversity of ideas, beliefs, values, viewpoints, creative expression, identity, and lived experiences – one that respects and celebrates human potential and all that humanity has to offer to the future of your business.
True diversity in business leads to the diversification of value that you create. It does not lead to unification, but to plurality; not to homogenization, but to new ideas and business opportunities. It opens up the doors to new possibilities for creating new and more meaningful futures for people.
The truest and highest expression of diversity is Humanity. The key to making your organization naturally diverse is in making it human. Then diversity will naturally occur as a by-product of that change.
When your organization embraces Humanity, it can become truly diverse. Until then, it is using diversity as a mimicry to make itself seem less out of touch with reality.
Diversity is a natural occurrence in society.
Representation is having a seat at the table.
Inclusion is having your voice heard.
Humanity makes Diversity & Inclusion a non-issue.
We should all be striving for the last.
Read also: Reimagining Consumerism As A Force For Good
About The Author
Dr. Martina Olbert is the world's leading expert on meaning in business, recognized by Forbes as 'the global authority on brand meaning'. She is a strategy advisor, thought leader, speaker, social scientist, and Founder & CEO of Meaning.Global, a global business imagination consultancy reimagining the future of brands and businesses to serve our complete humanity and the planet.
Interested in spreading these ideas in your organization to move beyond the current outdated framing of diversity and use it as an engine for innovation, value creation and future growth? Book Martina as a speaker to inspire change with a talk, consulting or a workshop. See more of her talks on the Speaking page.