To be diverse and inclusive, you have to break the rules

A lot of companies talk about wanting to be inclusive. Twitter recently released their diversity goals to lukewarm reception. Many believe the goals are not ambitious enough and are indicative of tech’s lip service to diversity but not their actual commitment.

If a company wants to be truly diverse and inclusive, it will have to break some of the golden rules of how companies operate and how employees are managed, namely:

You have to talk openly about identity: The biggest part about diversity is that the corporate world has to get over the belief that treating everyone the same produces equality. This sounds great in theory, but in reality it flops. There are certainly some areas where a little more same-ness is welcomed (for instance, more equal parental leave policies instead of only giving time off to women. This is not only necessary for equality for gay male employees, but it helps all men who have children).

In order for those changes to come about, however, you have to talk about identity. You have to talk about what being a man, a woman, straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, White, Black, Asian, etc. means in the workplace.

Everyone has to talk: A lot of initiatives are intended to equalize voices, but in reality can force people to stop talking. No matter what organizational culture you have, there will be employees that feel uncomfortable in some way. This is actually a good thing, if people are empowered to speak up instead of staying silent. By encouraging people to be open about issues in the workplace as it relates to the work and mission of the company, the company moves forward.

Having a workplace where people can be open about their thoughts in a respectful way (being open about your feelings is no excuse to be rude) leads to higher performing teams with greater creativity. Add in the diverse insights that come from having different identities and backgrounds in the room (rich in both inherent and acquired diversity), and you have a formula for success.

You have to play to people’s strengths and compensate for weaknesses: Not everyone can, or wants to, fix their weaknesses. Some people are the most natural salespeople in the world, but ask them to give a simple presentation of findings and they squirm. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t put them in front of a client, it means you should put them in contexts where they can shine, and find someone else to do the research findings presentations.

Traditional company rhetoric glosses over strengths and focuses on euphemistically named “development opportunities”. Now, don’t get me wrong – it is important to grow and learn as a person. Personal development, however, is also focusing on and developing your strengths. When a workforce leverages the strengths of each of its employees, it moves past dated stereotypes and notions of what it means to be a certain identity or have a certain background. The process of leveraging strengths forces everyone to look at each other, and themselves, as human beings. Once you have that, inclusion comes built in.