Are You Wasting Your Diverse Workforce?

April 15, 2016 at 12:02 PM by Lu Ellen Schafer

diversity hiring

Hiring diverse candidates is just the tip of the iceberg on making progress on your diversity initiative. Some of the companies that do put effort into their diversity recruitment squander the results. The experiences of their diverse employees they could leverage, their innovative ideas and perspectives, are often left untapped. Why? Part of it is because teams don’t ask and don’t listen.

Three is the magic number

Having trained over 8,000 Indian and Chinese engineers to work globally, I learned three is the magic number: One has to sometimes ask three times in different ways to communicate a genuine intent to understand another’s standpoint and to build trust. A small amount of patience can result in unearthing hidden gems –  a new idea, an underused skillset, an enlightening perspective. That is time well spent. 

Consider asking:

  • Tell me, what do you think of this solution?
  • What is another way we could approach this?
  • From what you have seen in the past, what is something we could do to fix this issue?

Sometimes all you need to do to discover someone’s unique viewpoint is to break the ice. Draw the other out by spending time with people who aren’t typically outspoken and are likely overshadowed by more vocal peers. Team meetings are a prime example of fortune favoring the bold – the conversation is often led by those with a penchant for being more assertive and forthright than their soft-spoken, equally creative counterparts.  

“Did I win the Tesla?”

Then comes the harder part: Listening. Most of us think we’re pretty good at it but it often requires greater focus than we give it. Imagine you have purchased a bunch of raffle tickets and they are about to raffle off a Tesla Model X. You would listen with pretty fierce concentration. This is the kind of listening we need to do with your diverse colleagues. Until the trust is built, their voices may be tentative, but the brainpower you hired them for is there, just waiting to be of value.

Many of us have had the experience of being asked our opinion and we hesitate: Is this a real question or just a veiled request for agreement? Provide all team members with a forum that encourages having a seat at the table. The more comfortable people feel about sharing their thoughts, the more trust they’ll have, and the more they’ll contribute.  

Create an inclusive sandbox

It is no secret that the surest way to kill innovation is to shut down different voices. The challenge is people are often unaware that the diverse voices are not being heard.

Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant wrote in a New York Times article, Speaking While Female, which recounts how a television show producer, Glen Mazzara, was concerned the young women writers on his team were not speaking up. They said when they did, they were immediately interrupted and no one noticed. He created a no-interruptions policy for everyone while the writers were pitching their stories. What happened? A wider variety of story ideas were pitched, and the team worked more effectively. In this case, and in others, the leaders need to notice and take action to encourage diverse voices.

Here’s a similar story I remember from one of my clients. A senior sales manager at NetApp started to pay attention to how often the women in his team were talked over, and how frequently their ideas were scooped up and then owned by the salesmen. He knew, however, if he stopped the meeting every time he saw this, the spirit of teamwork would shut down. The men would feel blamed, and the inclusive, productive environment he wanted would fail to materialize. But he loathed missing out on what his smart saleswomen could contribute.

He instituted a very quick and lighthearted way to fix the problem. When anyone heard someone being interrupted, they would call out, “One!” The interrupter would then realize he had interrupted and would often laugh and apologize. (The word “one” had no significance other that to be an amusing way of signaling, Hey, you are interrupting.)

When someone took another’s idea without giving credit, the call out was “Two!” Again, it was just a friendly way to draw attention to what was happening.

The team created two other call-outs as well: We’re going down a rat hole! for “Three”, and That’s a keeper! for “Four” to keep people aware without being antagonistic.

Did this rather entertaining way help lessen interruptions and create space for new ideas? Did the women feel they got credit for their ideas? Was it a more inclusive team? It was, in fact, brilliantly effective. The team’s camaraderie deepened and meetings were much more engaging with more voices being heard. They also exceeded their sales goals, too, which didn’t hurt.

The bottom line

Not listening to the diverse talent that we hire, would be leaving talent on the table. Who would want that? Hiring a team of varying experiences, skills, and backgrounds is just the start of taking advantage of the talent out there. Build an inclusive culture of open communication to tap into unheard viewpoints and game plans that could change how you grow your organization.

How are you developing your team? Share with us in the comments.

lu ellen schaferLu Ellen Schafer is the co-founder of Global Savvy, a San Francisco-based organization dedicated to providing international training and consulting programs for leading companies. She has trained over 30,000 high tech professionals to work inclusively across cultures and distance. Clients include Cisco, Apple, SAP, IBM, Oracle, NetApp, Polycom, SanDisk, Infosys, Wipro, TCS and Juniper among others. Say hi to Lu Ellen at or on LinkedIn.


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