Diversity: A Culture, Not A Cult

We're trying to build a healthy and balanced culture, not a cult.

- Audrey Blanche, former global head of diversity and inclusion, Atlassian

In two earlier posts, I’ve explored diversity from several angles. In Getting Diversity Right: Start At The Beginning, we took a deep dive into diversity in hiring and the fundamental argument for diversity: better business results.

There is increasing evidence that diversity in the workforce and on teams leads to better decision-making, with a significant impact on competitiveness. For example, McKinsey found in 2019 that ‘companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on executive teams were 25 percent more likely to have above-average profitability than companies in the fourth quartile’. And in another study, researchers found that diverse teams make better decisions because those teams are more likely to stick to facts and reason objectively. Additional research revealed that more diverse R&D teams were more likely to produce radical innovations. These are all results that companies should strive for.

In the second in this series, How Diversity Works, we looked into the ways that diversity influences group dynamics, and, in particular, why is it so hard to bring together people with different backgrounds, from different cultures and viewpoints, and harness the latent power of a wide range of perspectives on a given problem.

The key point I made is this:

Diversity leads to innovation. And given the high value of innovation in any line of business, innovation is worth the pain. Diversity can have a direct positive impact on a company’s bottom line, increase creativity, and change the way people think.

Bringing together a diverse group of people improves the likelihood of innovative thinking by increasing the range of information, perspectives, and opinions available to the group.

And as Treasury Secretary and economist Janet Yellen points out, homogeneity leads to group-think, often with terrible consequences:

In an experiment in which participants traded stocks to earn money, researchers randomly assigned participants either to ethnically homogenous or ethnically diverse markets. In the markets with ethnic diversity, prices became more accurate, relative to the fundamentals of the stocks, as trading proceeded. But in the ethnically homogeneous markets, pricing accuracy declined over the course of the simulation. Overpricing was common, as traders were more likely to accept speculative prices. Ethnically homogeneous traders were more prone to fall into group-think, making big-time errors, and suffering larger crashes when bubbles burst, whereas diverse groups were more likely to be skeptical and questioning of each other’s views.

In this final essay in the series, I will pull some observations from various sources on how to increase diversity in business.


In recent years, neurodiversity has become of greater importance, as more members of the workforce have learned that they have neurodiverse characteristics and businesses have become more open to working with the neurodiverse.

On one level, we are all neurodiverse, but as it is applied generally, we exclude people who fall into the middle range across the broad spectrum of neurodiversity: the neurotypical, who the world is built around. As Susanne Paola Antonetta describes it,

‘Neurodiversity’ is most often considered as conditions like autism spectrum, Down’s syndrome, and dyslexia. There is very little honest discussion of major disorders like schizophrenia, borderline, schizoaffective, and bipolar in the workplace. There is still a great deal of stigma in the workplace, especially for those of us who don’t fit conventional narratives.

In effect, our treatment of neurodiversity is a form of ableism. As a result, many neurodiverse workers ‘mask’ their neurodiversity, hiding in plain sight.

For many outside the neurotypical range, video communication may help, as does being very precise about needs and assignments. Ellie Middleton provides guidance for working with autistic workers:

Autistic people need instructions to be very clear, concise, and specific. A quick and easy way to do this is by giving instructions that follow a three-part format: What do you need, by when, and why?

Employee Resource Groups can provide a great forum for neurodiverse workers and their use is on the rise, with more than half of those surveyed believe ERGs benefit the business. Open communication between leadership and the rank-and-file foster trust, which can be critical in relationships with neurodivergent people.

Contingent Rhetoric

How we talk about diversity efforts matters. How diversity discussions are framed can reveal whether leadership is deeply committed or simply checking off an item on an HR list for the website. But diversity is complicated. For many people in the organization, diversity is a source of friction, as discussed earlier in the series. It’s hard work. And constantly talking about how it leads to better performance — as I have been doing across the board — shifts attention from deep issues.

As Lisa Leslie, a researcher from NYU’s Stern School of Business, characterizes it,

Sometimes diversity does in fact lead to better performance. It's seen as the moral and right thing to do and has these positive effects supporting that value-based rhetoric that leaders are always using. But sometimes, the exact opposite happens. Diversity actually has a negative effect on performance. People see it as unfair and therefore morally dubious, or it has to do with conflict and tension: People from different groups might not get along as well together as people from the same group.

So she and her colleagues developed an idea, a more nuanced way to discuss diversity: contingent rhetoric.

She explains contingent rhetoric [emphasis mine]:

the idea that diversity is valuable for organizations, but only if you overcome the challenges—if everyone learns to take other people's perspectives, or if people learn to successfully navigate the tensions that might arise, that sort of thing. We wanted to compare value rhetoric, ‘Diversity is good,’ to contingent rhetoric, ‘Diversity is good only if you overcome the challenges,’ in two different ways. The first question was just, which are leaders more likely to use? What we expected, and what we found, was that leaders were more likely to use value than contingent rhetoric, the reason being that value rhetoric is a uniformly positive message about diversity. There's a lot of evidence that leaders are hesitant to say negative things about diversity because they worry that they might be perceived by their employees as being prejudiced—maybe they'll interpret that as a signal that the leader doesn’t really value diversity.

And she and her colleagues found that contingent rhetoric works better.

You want to emphasize first that diversity is valuable, but then just add, ‘But we need to work through the challenges to get that value.’ Another way that I sometimes talk about it is that value rhetoric is ‘Diversity is good’ and contingent rhetoric is ‘Diversity is good but hard.’

It seems that emphasizing how hard diversity work is makes it more palatable to those disinclined to undertake it, which seems counterintuitive, but so much of human cognition is.

Diversity, Adaptability, and Misfits

In a world that is changing rapidly, companies need to adapt to those changes just as rapidly. Hiring for ‘fit’ with the existing operations and culture should be considered an error, therefore. Instead, companies should be trying to find — and promote — people who are the most adaptable. In The New Analytics of Culture, Matthew Corritore and his colleagues, make this point:

Hiring managers should look for candidates who demonstrate cultural adaptability, as these employees may be better able to adjust to the inevitable cultural changes that occur as organizations navigate increasingly dynamic markets and an evolving workforce.

And one group that is often overlooked can play a role in that situation: cultural misfits.

Managers should also not overlook cultural misfits. They can be wellsprings of creativity and innovation. But to make sure they flourish inside the organization, managers should consider assigning them to roles in which they are likely to develop strong connections within particular social groups. That’s because misfits need the trust and support of colleagues to be seen as quirky innovators rather than outlandish outsiders.

Bringing on ‘quirky innovators’ is an example of intentionally expanding cognitive diversity in the organization. There is a general assumption that cultural diversity leads to cognitive diversity, groups in which people think differently. However, that outcome is not a given, so it should be sought directly.

At the same time, there is research by Corritore and others that suggests that cognitive diversity is helpful at the outset of a project, but at the end stages, when execution is most critical, cognitive diversity might detract from performance. It’s important that members of a project team share core principles, even while embracing cognitive diversity.

Not A Cult, A Culture

As Audrey Blanche stated, companies need to build a culture that accepts the benefits and hard work of diversity but in a balanced and thoughtful way. As we’ve learned in this series, that starts with hiring with the goal of a broad set of perspectives that can be directed toward the company’s challenges. It continues across the board in day-to-day operations, where processes and practices have to confirm commitment to diversity and openly discuss the hard work needed to make it work.

But perhaps the last takeaway is working with people who think differently may be hard, but there are great benefits from learning how to think differently yourself and one of the most direct and immediate sources of that learning is from people very unlike yourself.

In an accelerating world, that might be the key mechanism to adaptability, now a prerequisite for survival.

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