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Bentley Lewis

Balancing cultural fit with diversity

Diversity and company values have been talked about a lot recently. Does one limit the other, or can they co-exist peacefully helping to enrich an organisation’s culture and increase profits?

For me, diversity means accepting and respecting that each individual is unique. It’s about appreciating and valuing our differences.

Kim Stephenson (occupational psychologist) commented that “People from different cultures, of different genders, of different ages, with different world views arising from various upbringings will produce a variety of information unavailable from a homogenous group who have the same background, education and so forth. They will also produce more options for action.” So hiring a group of people with different maps of the world should make for much more effective strategic decision making.

It goes without saying that I believe a firm shouldn’t care what colour, shape or sexuality a person is. But the more interesting question is whether basing your recruitment around company values, of which diversity could be one, actually limits cognitive diversity in a firm. Cognitive diversity recognises that people look at the world in different ways based on their own experiences.  Skin colour and sex shouldn’t have an effect on cognitive style but age, education and religious upbringing might.

The vast majority of firms have company values which are defined as being the operating philosophies that guide an organisation’s conduct, as well as its relationship with its customers, partners and shareholders. I think these values are important as they set a clear vision and align people behind a common purpose. People like organisations with good values and all else being equal; people are more attracted to an organisation that is passionate about what it does.

Steve Jobs for example believed that it was critical to be clear on what he wanted people to know about Apple. Jobs was very successful in delivering the message about: who is Apple, what they stand for and where they fit in this world. The philosophy goes that if you believe in a company’s values then you will buy their products. I think that is true.

If you look at Apple, one of the most successful firms of recent years, they have an extremely diverse and innovative work force.  Recent court documents revealed that their approach for developing new products is as follows: Hire super creative people with “maniacal” tendencies, sit them round a table, give them a job do to and let them get on with it. Cognitive diversity seems to be a bi-product of Apple’s recruitment strategy which has resulted in the most innovative and successful technology firm.

If you hire the wrong people in the first place and expect them to innovate it’s like trying to throw ice cubes at the sun. Maybe one of the contributing factors to the demise of some of the most well-known brands on the high street have had something to do with hiring the wrong people or people who are just too similar.

Organisations often base their recruitment processes around finding people who “fit” with their company values. This can reinforce people’s tendencies to recruit people like themselves with similar backgrounds and views of the world. The current Cabinet is a good example with the vast majority being educated at Oxford or Cambridge. Financial Services is similar with many firms hiring similar people. It is easily done and can lead to an attitude of institutional racism/sexism despite everyone fitting with values that in themselves are honourable. Hiring the same types of people certainly won’t produce a diverse and innovative work force.

Company values can also divide the work force and alienate people. If you deviate from the company line you could be side-lined and your view no longer listened to. According to Kim Stephenson, “they can also lead to ‘groupthink’ – if any of the bankers had subscribed to any value other than ‘the purpose of a business is increasing short-term shareholder value and earnings per share’, we might not have had a banking crisis.” Martin Wheatley, the new head of the Financial Conduct Authority commented recently that “The whole culture of the system fell apart to anything goes, as long as the compliance officer doesn’t say no”. I wonder whether it had anything to do with values and culture?

Of course if not everyone has the same opinion you might get more differences of opinion and delays. But you arguably get better decisions because there are more options available and there is less risk of groupthink. And quite frankly I would much rather work with people who have different ideas. This is how innovation is born and Apple is a great example of this.

Firms need to think carefully about the benefits of recruiting based on company values and what they are actually looking to achieve. Is diversity just a company value to tick a box or do you really want a diverse work force?

Maybe enlightened and cognitively diverse staff will be more independent, moral and less obedient, but they would certainly bring new ideas and innovation to the workplace. They will also have a mind of their own and might refuse to cross the line for short term profit and a nice end of year bonus. Values and culture motivate behaviour and given the events of recent years I think a properly thought out recruitment process is vital to a firm’s success.

If a company wants to innovate, make better strategic decisions and build trust with their customers, pure diversity should be ingrained in corporate culture which all starts with a well thought out recruitment strategy.

Lewis Maleh, Founder
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