Why company culture is often the enemy of true diversity

Our focus on creating organisational norms means we reject challenging people and disruptive ideas, says Dave Birss

I have a two-year-old daughter. Many of her current toys, books and TV shows are focused on teaching her some of life’s fundamental skills. Recently, this has involved her looking at coloured shapes and identifying the odd one out. It’s teaching her the fundamentals of discrimination. It’s starting her on the path of looking for difference. By the time she’s three she’ll have all the skills needed to pass an entrance exam for the Klan.

The truth is, the human ability to categorise and discriminate is built into all of us. Whether we like it or not, each of us is to some degree racist, sexist and culturocentrist. It’s a two-fold issue. Part of it is about resisting difference and the other part is about embracing the norm. It ends up with most workplaces hiring similar kinds of people who are encouraged to do the work in a similar kind of way. And this is really bad news for any organisation that needs ideas – and these days, that’s every organisation. 

Every group of people has an unwritten set of norms. It happens for nations, for social groups, for sports teams and, of course, for companies. Wherever people identify themselves as belonging to a collection of people, there are rules, ways of doing things, traditions and unquestioned assumptions. It's natural. We're social creatures and this is how we foster a feeling of belonging. 

It makes sure people think alike and get on. But this pull to the familiar norm prevents new and challenging ideas from being generated, supported or implemented.

In recent years it's become fashionable for business gurus to talk about the importance of having a strong company culture. It sounds good when someone is evangelising about it on stage, but I believe it causes more problems. Defining a culture often becomes an exercise in clarifying 'this is who we are' and 'this is who we are not'. It creates a stronger norm, which builds an even more effective barrier to keep the challenging ideas out. It can also have a pernicious effect on hiring, giving people a stronger reason to discriminate and recruit who they believe to be the 'right people'.

The other big business catchword of recent years has been ‘diversity'. This is a wonderfully positive thing. I don’t think I’ve ever worked in a company with a workforce that's representative of the audience it's trying to reach – which is clearly a problem. The push to hire people with different backgrounds isn't just the morally correct thing to do; it's also the single biggest action a business can take to improve the ideas it gets from its employees. But only if they let it.

A more diverse workforce is a workforce with broader knowledge, experience, skills, perspectives and ways of working. It comprises individuals who have the potential to approach things from fantastically outside the norm. But most organisations immediately set to work on turning these valuably different individuals into valueless identikit employees. 

If everyone thinks the same, everyone comes up with similar ideas. And in a time when our audiences and markets are changing around us, many companies will end up like bands of passengers huddling together on the Titanic as the water laps at their ankles. They need to look beyond their comfortable circle and start coming up with effective solutions.

In a business landscape where more and more of the work is being automated and AI systems are being developed to do human work better than humans ever could, developing new ideas is how you survive. Following rules, systems and formulas are how you become irrelevant. Some companies will see this as a threat. Others will see it as an opportunity. The successful ones know how to spot the difference.

Dave Birss is a creativity and applied thinking expert and speaker in the Thought Expansion Network