Zebras and ostriches exhibit diversity, trust and teamwork

Diversity and Trust. Can they co-exist in a great workplace?

What makes a ‘great’ workplace? And is it possible to transform where you work into where you want to work?

Making the grade as a ‘Great Place to Work’ means that your employees believe in the management; they feel respected and fairly treated, that is, they feel a high level of trust. While it may sound simple, building diversity and trust in the workplace is complex.

Experience shows that we trust people who are most like us. Those in our circle of trust are almost always people of similar age, background, education, race, marital status etc.

When hiring, many organisations look for “culture fit”, people who will be instantly trusted by the majority simply because they’ll slip into an easy work routine, collaborate positively and make a harmonious workplace.

The problem is that hiring people just like us produces sameness and groupthink – the very opposite of what we need for the future of work. 

By fast-tracking ‘trust-building,’ we sacrifice the benefits of ‘difference’ – different ideas, insights and contrary opinions; different knowledge perspectives and types of thinking.

The industrial age sought consistency through standardisation, delivering consistent quality and productivity for a stable market and predictable customer. But the way we work has changed, presenting new and different challenges. Organisations today seek a point of difference – that unique product or service, that way of reaching the broadest customer base.

The surest way to find the ‘magic’ is to have smart, diverse teams with an abundance of ideas and insights.

Whilst it might feel more comfortable to be in a homogenous team, research suggests that working in a non-homogenous team “challenges your brain to overcome stale ways of thinking and sharpen its performance”. In short, non-homogenous teams are not only more interesting and diverse, but they are also smarter.

How can your organisation reconcile the benefits of trust and the power of difference?

And is it even possible to:

  • Overcome tribal bonds and treat people whose responses we can’t quite predict in the same way we treat those whose responses are familiar.
  • Ensure we give the same quality of feedback to people outside our trust circle as we give to those like us so that they, too, can grow and develop.
  • Make ourselves listen to different ideas rather than only hear the ideas we might have thought of ourselves.
  • Allocate work to the person who will add the most value rather than the person we believe we can most rely on.

These are the challenges to balancing diversity and trust in the workplace.

It’s one thing to have notched up the numbers, but if the dominant group is consciously or unconsciously biased, how will others really feel they belong, and how will we reap the benefits of difference?

With genuine effort and commitment, courage and a strong sense of purpose, you can achieve the balance and create systems with built-in strategies for inclusion.

Consider how you:

  • Interpret merit.
  • Interview and recruit to avoid bias.
  • Give equal time and thought to all feedback.
  • Avoid assumptions when allocating work.
  • Offer flexible work for every employee, not just one group.

The key to successful diversity and inclusion is not about favouring one group over another, it’s about treating every employee equally.

Leaders need to provide concrete reasons for balancing diversity and trust to show how it eases pain and creates gain. While individuals need commitment and purpose to make the systems work and foster a diverse workplace where everyone can thrive.

Practical ideas for building diversity and trust:

  • Focus on what you have in common – you might be surprised.
  • Learn to listen – to really hear and absorb the stories and ideas from others.
  • Speak up when you observe something that’s not right.
  • Constantly and resolutely address your own biases.
  • Understand that not everyone experiences life the same as you do.
  • Promote understanding by learning what is important to individuals from other cultures and backgrounds.
  • Appreciate being challenged and being open to new thoughts.
  • And as an organisation, aspire to diversity and inclusion.

When you focus on diversity and inclusion so that every employee feels they belong, your trust quotient will skyrocket, and so will your performance.

A note about the image:

Zebras and ostriches exhibit diversity, trust and teamwork. Zebras have a great sense of smell and hearing but poor eyesight. The ostrich has excellent vision but poor hearing and sense of smell. They work together for safety, and their differences make them stronger and smarter. (Ref: https://animalsymbiosis.weebly.com/zebra-and-ostrich.html)

Tess Julian is responsible for the Hargraves’ diversity program, Women @ Work. This program empowers women through exploring barriers and inherent biases, then leading change and applying learnings through coaching, pitching and a follow-up project.

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