Although it is now over 20 years ago I still clearly remember the first study of so-called personality types I was a subject of in my first workplace, and here right after I had graduated from university.Due to the rather high attrition rate at that company, they repeated the study every year. The results that came that year deeply shook the executive team.It was the first time that the team had turned out to be very diverse in terms of social backgrounds, thinking styles and preferred modes of collaboration. Previously the results of that study had indicated that the organization was a monolith – people seemed alike, easy to manage and predictable. So how come such a profound change was uncovered from one year to the next? As a young employee, fresh out of college, no one cared to explain this to me. But I remember that the management was clearly disappointed. Back in the 1990s and in early 2000s managing homogenous teams was common, natural and even desirable. Teams that strayed from that “standard” were considered a threat to productivity.
When I think of a well-functioning team I prefer to think in terms of diversity rather than differences. While differences naturally tend to divide us, diversity is a com- mon asset for all of us that can positively drive the most important processes.
In another company I worked for later in my career the high-performing team that I was a part of was nicknamed “the tank.” We achieved top results on a pan-European scale. Our excellent, superefficient ways of working drastically outperformed those of our competitors. We were a group of vastly different people and these stellar results started occurring only after one year of working together, when our boss was replaced. This new manager presented a completely different approach, offering us support and at the same time allowing us to figure things out for ourselves with a healthy dose of freedom and independence.
Confident that I could manage my own team, I moved on to another company. The challenge posed to me by my new boss there proved daunting. I was put in charge of the toughest region in Poland, where our strongest competitor ran rampant, staff were demotivated and major customers seemed bent on bringing us down. And there was this meeting I will never forget, that my superior organized at a seaside hotel. The business objectives were pretty standard: increase sales and market share. My boss had invited me – a regional sales manager – along with the heads of marketing, HR, finance, legal, logistics, a HoReCa trade marketing coordinator, an events manager and receivables controller. Instead of having sales broadly represented at the meeting he chose to rely on a “collection” of men and women of varying ages, with drastically different backgrounds, whose day-to-day jobs had little to do with sales. This logic was completely new to me and I struggled to understand what such a “random” group of extremely diverse individuals could reasonably achieve in that setting. However, after 2 days of workshops followed by months of interactions over a detailed plan that was later to turn out to be the largest plan budget-wise in the company’s history, and which in the following 2 years was to contribute to the increasing of my regional market share from 15.9% to 23.4%, the wisdom my boss had demonstrated was revealed and became one of the most valuable business lessons in my career. The potential of a deliberately selected and diverse team is limitless.
“After 2 days of workshops followed by months of interactions over a detailed plan that was later to turn out to be the largest plan budget-wise in the company’s history, and which in the following 2 years was to contribute to the increasing of my regional market share from 15.9% to 23.4%, the wisdom my boss had demonstrated was revealed and became one of the most valuable business lessons in my career. The potential of a deliberately selected and diverse team is limitless.”
Global economic growth in recent years has irreversibly affected societies, markets and technologies. Our communication and competitive environment has been altered forever. Everyday we see new data and information flowing our way. The sheer number of variables, challenges, and possible scenarios faced by our business is enormous, and growing as we speak. We observe it all with our own objectives and targets in mind, choosing the people we want by our side as we go about achieving them. We want creative teams, we want innovation. Can we get there, can we beat our rivals with a uniform group? In some cases, on a small scale – maybe. However, I dare say that on an enterprise scale, in strategic teams, in innovation or R&D departments, with ever more complex and tough challenges (who doesn’t face them these days?) such a model will not be enough.
I ground my hypothesis both in my managerial experience and the research that corroborates it, and there is a considerable body of research on the subject. For instance, according to Bain & Company,¹ business performance is linked in 95% to the quality of its decision-making processes. And this quality is greatly affected by diversity within teams and the inclusion of all team members in these processes.
What makes us different from one another? On the one hand, there are some visible and obvious signs, so called primary characteristics, such as sex, age, skin color, ethnic background, degrees of (dis)ability, psychosexual orientation, and sexual identity. These differences often give rise to stereotypes that everyone is familiar with and, unfortunately, some believe. One of the most common ones is that “men are more analytical than women” – a notion that has been long refuted by neuroscientists.² Another, one of my “favorite” stereotypes brands different generations as certain kinds of people: Gen X – hardworking; millennials – narcissistic and entitled; Gen Z – hypersensitive, etc. I encourage all who subscribe to such thinking to try and look at research by the American psychologists K.H. Trzesniewski and M.B. Donnellan.³ They have recently proven that intergenerational differences, as much as they exist, are subtle and have no practical meaning.
What does all this entail? As a result some less than competent HR representatives will refuse to hire candidates aged 50+, thinking they are “inflexible” and “can’t be bothered anymore”, which is clearly nonsense.
How are we different from a practical, business point of view? We have different beliefs and attitudes. This leads to the different norms and values we profess. We represent different social styles – the way we approach other people, including coworkers. We have different experiences, which are often linked to organizational maturity and employee attitudes. Finally, we are culturally different, which is determined by our backgrounds and upbringing.
However, when I think of a well-functioning team I prefer to think in terms of diversity rather than differences. While differences naturally tend to divide us, diversity is a common asset for all of us that can positively drive the most important processes unfolding within organizations.
What made that diverse team that I became a part of several years ago initiate one of the greatest success stories on the market? Today it is clear and simple to me: a real mix of cultural backgrounds, experiences, viewpoints, and social styles creates a unique space where necessary change can be designed and implemented.
If we foster tolerance, diversity, including coworkers in decision-making processes, we can have a meaningful contribution to creating a constructive and better society. It is our joint responsibility as businesses and individuals to promote these values.
There is one more thing, at least as important, namely the role that companies play in society. What is our role as managers and executives? Anyone who believes that our role is exclusively to shape and influence our organizations, the people in them and our local markets is hugely mistaken. Throughout childhood we are under the influence of our parents, friends, schools and – indirectly – politicians that shape, for instance, the education system. As adults we spend at least half of our waking time at work. To this we add time spent with family, a small group of friends, some also connect with their religious and church communities, while politicians continue to affect us indirectly. This handful of interactions fundamentally shape us as human beings, affecting the way we change throughout our lives, what values we profess and how we act. Whether we like it or not the company we work for is one of the key factors determining our community and our individual identity – who and how we are.
Whether written and explicitly understood or not, every company has its own values and culture. It is affected by the people working in the organization, and at the same time the culture affects and shapes them. Employees then interact with their family members, friends and others around them. So yes, companies, including yours, have a huge influence on all of us as a society. If our actions lack respect for other human beings; if we don’t communicate directly; if we don’t make sure that the whole company follows the principles of healthy interactions with diversity in mind then this is the society we are building. If, however, we foster tolerance, diversity, including coworkers in decision-making processes, we can have a meaningful contribution to creating a constructive and better society. It is our joint responsibility as businesses and individuals to promote these values.
Lastly, and more importantly, understanding and fostering diversity as well as an inclusive culture are not only invaluable organizational and social assets but also, above all, a way to be human-centered. Being different, distinct, which can give rise to stereotypes and prejudices, is a quality that can be attributed to each of us. But a change in approach to this “distinctness”, being mindful of it, respecting and appreciating it – all this makes for a safe environment where we can all freely achieve our potential, grow and be creative. As a result we are able to give our best to society, organization, family and one another – to build a better world.
Diversity is not something special or strange. Diversity is a key driver of growth. It is diversity that prevents us from standing still, pretending that everything is perfect.
Let me go back to the 1990s, the beginning of my career. We used to think that in being surrounded by similarities we would feel safe. However, it turned out we were wrong. Diversity is not something special or strange. Diversity is a key driver of growth. It is diversity that prevents us from standing still, pretending that everything is perfect.
Maciej Herman (he, him), CEO, Lotte Wedel, has been with Wedel since 2008 and in FMCG for over 20 years. He gained his experience in various sales positions at major international companies (Kompania Piwowarska, Frito Lay, Procter&Gamble). Under his leadership Wedel has become one of the fastest growing confectionery companies in Poland, successfully expanding into international markets.
- Marcia W. Blenko, Michael Mankins, Paul Rogers, The Decision-Driven Organization, “Harvard Business Review”, June 2010, https://hbr.org/2010/06/the-decision-driven-organization.
- Detailed outline of the research in Gina Rippon’s The Gendered Brain: The New Neuroscience That Shatters The Myth Of The Female Brain, Pantheon Books 2019.
- Kali H. Trzesniewski, M. Brent Donnellan, Rethinking “Generation Me”: A Study of Cohort Effects From 1976–2006, “Perspectives on Psychological Science” 2010, No. 1 (5), pp. 58–75; https://www.researchgate.net/publication/258180040_Rethinking_Generation_Me_A_Study_of_Cohort_Effects_From_1976-2006.
This article is one of the chapters in Diversity and Inclusive Culture Step-by-Step, a guide published by the Polish Institute for Human Rights and Business (PIHRB) and featuring contributions from representatives of various companies and experts in D&I. Originally published in 2021 in Polish, the guide has since been translated into English and Russian with support from CIPE and the Embassy of the Netherlands in Poland. The full guide is available at: https://pihrb.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/10/Diversity_Inclusion_Guide_EN-FinalWeb_spreads.pdf
Republished with permission from the author.