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Diversity in the Workplace: How Purpose Impacts Diversity and Inclusion

Diversity is often compared to an iceberg. There are parts visible above the surface, like ethnicity and physical disability, but then there’s much more beneath the surface: cultural background, economic status, educational history, and more.

Why is cultural diversity so vital?

Today’s management needs to recognize the importance of cultural diversity so they can leverage it to flourish. Not only is cultural diversity a sought-after trait by today’s job seekers (research from Glassdoor shows that having a diverse workforce is important to 67% of job seekers, and disproportionately more so for job seekers with minority identities), it also has a positive impact on many important organizational outcomes.

Sociologists and anthropologists alike agree that “culture” and “diversity” are two of the hardest words to succinctly define, so defining “cultural diversity” can be a challenge. Perhaps it’s easier to explain what types of things fall under the scope of cultural diversity.

In her study “Cultural Diversity in the Workplace- Discourse and Perspectives,” Veronica Maria notes that there has been a shift in what is included when discussing cultural diversity. Historically, cultural diversity was discussed using “narrow categories” like gender and ethnicity. However, the definition has expanded in the past few decades to include “broad categories” including age, social class, and cultural background. These broad categories have been further expanded into “visible diversity,” like race and physical disability (the part of the iceberg above the water) and “invisible diversity,” like education and sexual orientation (the submerged part of the iceberg).

What’s the difference between diversity and inclusion?

Diversity and inclusion are often bundled together, so much so that they are sometimes used as synonyms. This is not the case: diversity and inclusion are clearly distinct things. Put simply, diversity is what you have, inclusion is what you do.

Diversity consultant Jennifer Brown explains it in a slightly different way. She says that diversity is the “who” and the “what.” It encompasses who is in the office and what their identities are. Meanwhile, inclusion is the “how.” Inclusion is the manifestation of how the people in the office welcome and embrace diversity.

A quote from diversity advocate Vernā Myers gets to the heart of why we should not only focus on diversity: “Diversity is being invited to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance.” Being invited to the party is nice, yes, but being asked to dance makes you feel like you’re part of the party. In the same way, it’s easy to cherry-pick a diverse group of people to hire, but fostering an inclusive work environment can be tricky, yet rewarding.

Simply being diverse is not enough. An employee can have several minority identities, making them quality as “diverse,” but if they do not feel comfortable enough to express themselves around a more homogeneous group, they can not unlock the benefits that diversity brings and be their best-self at work. The D&I initiative buck cannot stop at HR’s hiring team; companies must prioritize diversity and inclusion at all levels in the organization.

Benefits of diversity and inclusion in the workplace

It may seem that people with varying beliefs and backgrounds would not mesh together, but thankfully this is not the case. Workplaces with higher levels of cultural diversity and inclusion have a myriad of benefits, including:

  • Higher levels of creativity. Having people with diverse backgrounds and identities creates a more diverse thought pool, naturally leading to more creativity. Different people who have had different kinds of life experiences to draw upon can think more creatively than one homogenous group.
  • Less susceptible to groupthink. Groupthink is the phenomenon where people working in groups tend to get tunnel vision and try to create group harmony through conforming to what the group’s general consensus appears to be. Groupthink is detrimental to problem solving, and decisions made while experiencing groupthink are lower quality. Luckily, according to research by Barbara Mazur, in culturally diverse workplaces, people feel more comfortable dissenting from the norm, stopping groupthink in its tracks.
  • More inclusive-feeling environments. Research has long showed the positive benefits of cultural diversity on inclusivity. In fact, a 1977 book found that culturally diverse workplaces are less likely to have an in-group/out-group dynamic, meaning a less cliquey, more accepting workplace. No one wants to feel excluded, and having a more culturally diverse environment is a proven way to avoid this feeling.
  • Improved adaptability to change. Mazur’s research also argued that multicultural organizations are more flexible and better at adapting to the changes that come their way, possibly because if employees come from a diverse set of backgrounds, there’s a higher chance one of them has dealt with something like this before.
  • Better cross-cultural communication. Gillian Coote Martin found that high cultural diversity makes it easier for employees to communicate with clients and coworkers from other cultures, including international clients and coworkers. They use the knowledge they gain from working closely with a culturally diverse group in their own workplace and apply it to future cross-cultural business situations.
  • Increased productivity and employee satisfaction. If employees feel comfortable speaking to a diverse set of colleagues and expressing their own opinions, there is a greater sense of collaboration and teamwork, which was found to increase productivity and employee satisfaction.

How does purpose impact cultural diversity in the workplace?

Research shows that more with a heightened sense of purpose comes more tolerance of a culturally diverse workplace. In fact, one study found that people with a stronger sense of purpose are more comfortable around people of different ethnicities than their own.

In her book Teaching for Purpose, Heather Malin found schools that foster a purpose-driven environment are more likely to acknowledge and support student diversity. While not exactly a business setting, the connections between this book and cultural diversity in the workplace are clear—managers (teachers) who instill a sense of purpose in their employees (students) help champion an inclusive, diverse atmosphere, unlocking all of the positive benefits of a culturally diverse workplace described above.

Citing numerous studies related to purpose and DEI strategies, Brandon Peele, best-selling author, international speaker, the vice president, people science at ion Learning, summarizes the science:

“Further, when we know our purpose, we recognize on some level that everyone else has a purpose and that they deserve the opportunity to discover it, activate it and bring it work. I would even regard purpose activation as a civil right, as without it we are beholden to our socialized self and the systemic inequities and internalized oppression that formed it. Accordingly, the personal liberation that results from purpose work, becomes an activist stance towards the purpose, self-actualization, prosperity and advancement of others as well.”

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