Diversity is essential to critical thinking, innovation, and improved decision-making/governance. The more ways we have at looking at a problem, the more likely we can be to challenge the status quo, break old paradigms, and find new and better ways of doing things.
However, according to the Wall Street Journal, 25 January 2010, often diversity—even at the highest levels, such as on boards of directors—doesn’t produce the desired results.
WHY? “People often feel baffled, threatened or even annoyed by persons with views and backgrounds very different from their own. The result is that [those]…with views or backgrounds that are different are isolated or ignored. [Moreover,] constructive disagreements spill over into personal battles.” In the end, Groupthink and poor decision-making—rather than diversity and constructive dialogue—prevails.
Therefore, the imperative to improve governance mechanisms is “to unlock the benefits of diversity, boards must learn to work with colleagues who were selected not because they fit in—but because they don’t.”
WHAT WE NEED TO DO:
1. “Assist Newcomers”—Help new people to fit in. Explain how things work and how they can play an important role. Introduce them to others, provide them opportunities to connect, and make them feel comfortable to share their points of view.
2. Encourage Dissent—“diverse boards must not be afraid of conflict, as long as it is constructive and civil.” Alternate views should be encouraged, recognized, and even rewarded for benefiting the governance process.
3. Ask Everyone What They Think-- It is easy for new people “to tire of the struggle of making themselves heard. Feeling isolated and ignored, they end up self-censoring.” Obviously, this is counter-productive to having diversity and hurts decision-making. So the chair of the board needs to make it easy for people to express their views and to elicit participation from everyone around the table.
4. Assign a “Devil’s Advocate”—choose different governance board members to play the role of devil’s advocate at different meetings to counter the inclination for everyone to agree just to get along and fit in.
Overall, the key to benefiting from diversity on governance boards is not to let any individual or any group predominate. The proverbial “my way or the highway” approach is how decision-making becomes one-sided, narrow, and deficient. Instead, every one on the board must be treated with respect, courtesy, and be given the opportunity to speak their mind.
In my opinion, leaders must ensure that governance boards do not just create an appearance of diversity, but rather encourage a genuine and productive encounter between very different people that is richer for the interaction.