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The business case for diversity is well known, or at least it should be in the year 2022. Research highlights its contribution to increased financial success of an organisation due to a multitude of reasons — providing a variety of different approaches to solving a business problem, enhanced creativity, learning just through conversations, and challenging a stagnant status quo.

But approaching diversity is not as simple as it seems. Latest research shows that simply 'adding' a diverse workforce does not increase the financial productivity of an organisation and in some instances can even backfire.

Harvard Business School Professor Robin Ely and Professor Emeritus David Thomas say taking an ‘add diversity and stir’ approach, while business continues as usual, will not spur leaps in your firm’s effectiveness or financial performance. Instead, it needs to be harnessed correctly. Otherwise, they argue, it can lend to tension and conflict.

So how does one manage a team properly? Digressing from a top-down approach to understanding these further, it is interesting to gain some insight from the under-represented.

The male-dominated world of oil

“I am the first [female] in my role,” says Syeda Sadaf Shah, a team leader for the drilling and completions department at an upstream oil and gas organisation operating in Pakistan. “The first female graduate from Mehran University Petroleum Engineering department. The first female well-site trainee engineer and first female drilling and completions engineer in the country.”

Globally, this pioneer is one of the few of her gender in the energy sector.

The sector makes up one of the least gender-diverse industries in the world where the under-representation of women starts upon entry. According to the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), women occupied only about one-quarter of the industry’s entry-level positions in 2021.

“I would advise managers to treat everyone fairly without considering gender limitations,” says Shah. “Girls are equally or, at times, more competent than guys in the workplace and have the potential to grow as future leaders.”

According to the BCG, there are persistent unconscious biases around gender-related challenges that can hamper a women’s prospect for advancement.

In the Pakistani context, typical stereotypes about females needing to be rescued, or are delicate or physically incapable can lead to managers neglecting leadership potential.

“I have spent sleepless nights on projects, standing on the rig floor, and prioritising my work by giving it my all to be where I am today,” says Shah. “There are times when I have felt like an alien and have been the only female in the room. However, that too works as a motivational factor as I have the opportunity to make it work.”

Need for empathetic leadership

Diversity policies also take a backseat with some employees saying that it was “too much effort” in the BCG survey marking the issue low on the priority list. Managers need to tap into their emotional intelligence and embrace empathetic leadership to understand and deliver the issue of being excluded.

This can also include doing a self assessment of one’s attitudes and beliefs to uncover any biases, especially when it comes to retention, promotion and development of diverse individuals.

Additionally, and most importantly, managers may be lured by taking the quick and easy path to success but need to recognize that true resounding success sometimes comes through a tussle of diverse voices in a team. Constructive conflict comes into play here which is a powerful stimulus to growth and change.

An essential requirement for constructive conflict is the art of having crucial conversations or conflict management skills to steer the inevitable clashes in a diverse team towards a beneficial direction.

Mind over matter

About four years ago, Farheen Zahid was diagnosed with a rare type of cancer coupled with a rare side effect from treatment, and consequently, suffered chest-down paralysis that has only happened to seven other people in the world. She has become a powerhouse of productivity since by taking up two remote working jobs — one at a UK-based tutoring organisation called The E-Learning Network (ELN) and the other at Webnet Pakistan.

Obstacles that are associated with an individual are sometimes 90% of a managerial mental barrier. This is illustrated by the backlash towards remote working prior to the COVID-19 pandemic that quickly got replaced by acceptance as the “new normal” during these past few years.

“My message to managers would be if you could just look past our disability and look at our ability then you won't be disappointed,” says Zahid. “I believe that after I became disabled, I pushed myself more and did things I couldn't even imagine I could do before.”

Managers need to focus on outcomes rather than being fixated on the activity or process.

This ensures that there is access to highly performing individuals, like Zahid who had been promoted to tutor less than a year of working with the ELN.

“I started [working] part time and was allowed to just do two hours initially when I was still new as making my brain work after being year-long deep into depression was really hard work,” says Zahid. "It took all my energy but then I started enjoying it.”

Having an open communication line with an emphasis on listening and feedback are vital to understanding people’s mental and physical accommodations. And a central ingredient for effective communication with a diverse team is having basic respect.

“We don't need pity or sympathy, we just need equality and respect that everyone deserves,” says Zahid. “If that person [who is an applicant for a job] happens to have a disability, so be it — give us a chance, not charity.

Work culture and understanding beliefs

Consider an experience of a medical professional working in the United States. Generally, his workplace environment was liberal and showed respect for Muslims. However, well-meaning they were, one day while he was praying his colleague starting waving her hand in front of him and asked “are you okay?”.

And so comes a very simple lesson from this experience for managers: educate yourself. Do not make assumptions about religion, culture, or anyone in particular.

This is sometimes referred to as cultural competency which is imperative in developing meaningful professional relationships with people of various cultural backgrounds. In the Pakistani context, that would include educating yourself about the different ethnicities, religions and their associated customs.

There are many diverse groups that comprise potential employees in our work places mentioned above.

The interviews above attempt to provide general guidance into how we can integrate and build successful, inclusive teams through a blend of emotional intelligence, communication skills, and knowledge/rationality. On the surface, they do seem simple enough, but actually they require due diligence be performed through self reflection and intentional hard work.

Ironically, Winston Churchill says it best: “Diversity is the one true thing we all have in common. Celebrate it every day.”

The article does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Business Recorder or its owners

Khadija Husain

The writer is a HR professional based in the US

Comments

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Usman Zahid Oct 08, 2022 09:08pm
Thank you for sharing on such an important topic!
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