Is 'group think' stopping true diversity being achieved in business?

The issue of diversity, including gender, has received a lot of attention and good progress has been made, but there is still a long way to go before many workplaces reap the full yield of a diverse and gender rich workplace...

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My views on the value of workplace diversity have been forged over my thirty year career working within and interacting with large businesses in the Australian marketplace. It was only 20 years ago when I was at a large funds management house that I had to fight management to allow me to have one of my best people return on a part time basis following the birth of her first child. She went on to have three children and continued to work part time and proved to be one of the most productive employees for the organisation.

Organisations are best able to manage and leverage their human capital when they have leadership that both facilitates a diverse range of thinking and is great at understanding and developing a relationship with their people. However, in my view, the problem of lack of diversity stems from the fact that too many boards and senior leadership teams are made up of a majority of individuals who have a common personality type and ideology. This creates ‘group think’ where whole concepts, imagination and creative ideation can be missed because the management team is dominated by people who think the same. 

Moreover, the personality type that dominates the boards and the senior ranks of many large organisations does not value diversity and generally struggles to develop an authentic relationship with the people they manage. This type could best be described as Alpha or ‘A-type’. I would define A-type senior management as having the following attributes: strong drive and most often an ability to deliver; intelligent; articulate with an ability to argue a case to the point where black is white; assertive to the point of being aggressive and some even cross the line to bullying; low EQ which comes with poor people management and ability to connect with their reports; an ability to self-justify any of their own actions; low levels of humility ;high levels of ego and hubris; lacking in authenticity.

A-types rise to the top of most large organisations because they can handle and indeed love a good fight.

I could go on but by now you will have formed a picture of this personality type and probably be able to identify individuals you have seen in action through your own careers. But probably the biggest fundamental problem with A-types is they self-identify very strongly with the role to the point that the role means more to them than it would to most non A-types and this drives their need to behave in a certain way to get to the top and maintain their position at all costs. By the way A-types are not exclusively male. There are many female A-types who exhibit the same characteristics but on balance it is more of a male than female trait.

A-types rise to the top of most large organisations because they can handle and indeed love a good fight and along the way outlast most of the non A-types (both women and men), who don't self-identify as much with the role and are happier to opt to do something else that is more fulfilling to them rather than spend their time banging heads against a bunch of A-types. This could range from moving into smaller organisations or spending more of their energy on fulfilling pursuits outside of work rather than slog it out to get to the top of the organisation.

This is not a recent phenomenon, it has been going on for centuries across all types of organisations. Including the military, religious, political and industrial organisations. In fact large organisations, where communication lines are stretched, provide the perfect pre-condition for the A-type to thrive as they battle their way to the top. So there are powerful forces at work which counter attempts to open the organisation to diversity.

The problem with this Darwinian theory of self-selection is that you end up with a very non-diverse  senior management team. The culture in all organisations is set from the top and a bunch of A-types with low EQ simply don't value diversity. Moreover the pattern in that organisation is self-fulfilling as A-types look to employ and promote those of their own likeness either consciously or unconsciously. 

While Senior A-types may have a strong ability to argue their case, importantly it does not mean that they are right. They simply have developed a methodology of getting their way, usually through force of personality. In fact when you see large corporate blow-ups or scandals chances are there is an A-type at the heart of it. Having said that, there are many organisations led by A-types that have been very successful in a financial sense. The question you have to ask however is how more successful they could have been if they had of got the people dynamic right.

So what do we do about it? Boards and senior management have to be alive to this issue and seek ways to identify the problem and actively steer the organisation into the direction of diversity by promoting those talented women and men who are great at what they do but have a mix of personality traits that allow diversity of opinion to flourish and importantly are great people managers. This will enable the organisation to evolve to one which values EQ and reaps the benefits of a liberal minded free thinking organisation with richness of ideas and methods and doubtless will be a better place to work and be best placed to raise productivity from the discretionary effort delivered via a happier workforce.

In my view it will only be once this revolution takes place that large organisations will become truly diverse and all the benefits that diverse talented women (and men) bring to their roles will be leveraged.

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