When you look around at your colleagues, teammates, or collaborators, what do you see? How similar are you to one another, or how diverse is your group? When we think of diversity, we typically think of things we can see -- race, sex, visible disabilities. But diversity also encompasses our diverse array of life experiences, background knowledge, and other “invisible” differences.
You might look at the person at the desk beside yours and think that you’re pretty similar. But that person may have a radically different socioeconomic status than yours. They may be a veteran, or the child of an armed forces member. They may struggle with mental illness or a learning disability. They may have been raised with values, beliefs, and mannerisms much different than yours.
Given all this diversity, do you think that you and that colleague would approach a question, problem, or challenge in the same exact manner? Probably not. This is why diversity in the workplace is much more than just a token feel-good slogan that appears on recruitment materials and in occasional emails from your human resources department. New ideas and novel approaches to problem solving are the cornerstones of innovation.
If this all seems a bit too abstract to grasp, consider this common example of how diversity helps teams to solve problems: “The Ketchup Problem.” Imagine you’re at a cookout with some new coworkers. The host asks you to fetch the ketchup from the kitchen, but when you open the refrigerator, you don’t find any ketchup there. Puzzled, you come up empty-handed.
Lucky for you, though, someone notices your conundrum and offers to help. When you tell him you’re looking for the ketchup, he immediately turns to the pantry, where -- lo and behold -- he finds the bottle almost immediately, and the cookout goes on.
It’s a good thing that one of your new coworkers is British, because that’s exactly where most British folks keep their “tomato sauce.” If this team member had grown up in the same country as you, it’s likely that neither of you would have ever thought to check the pantry.
When your colleagues embrace and celebrate diversity as a strength, your team strategically unlocks a wider array of ideas, backgrounds, contexts, and knowledge in your workforce. A 2011 Forbes survey of 321 companies found that 85% of these companies agreed that “diversity is key to driving innovation in the workplace” (Tencer, 2011).
Have you ever encountered a situation where somebody solved a problem in a way you never would have considered? In what other ways have you seen the benefits of a diverse working team?
Tencer, Daniel (28 September 2011). Forbes Survey: Workplace Diversity Key to Innovation. Retrieved 21 September 2016 from http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2011/07/29/workplace-diversity-innovation_n_913214.html.