Why do we struggle to introduce diversity at the workplace?

Researches and discussions report how diversity increases profit, productivity, or innovation. DEI (or more fashionably DEI&B) has clearly been on the HR agenda for many years now. We don’t need to do a deep analysis to experience how challenging it is to push the DEI idea through the managers. If we still feel it necessary to attend conferences, events or to go to workshops or training dinasours, it seems suspicious that it requires quite a lot of effort. But why is this, if the concept is so common sense? What is it that managers don’t understand? Honestly, they don’t understand what HR doesn’t do either.

There is a lot of argument around, for example, how much men and women are different. But data does not seem to support this theory. A massive meta-analysis of several hundreds of studies [1] found that in 22 percent of cases women and men differed: men can throw an object further and faster than women can; men tend to masturbate more frequently (or at least they are more prone to report it); and men tend to have a more positive view of casual sex. But unless we work in a very unusual industry, a leadership position at our organization probably does not require a manager to be super-good at throwing things, having casual sex, or self-pleasure.

While stereotypical gender differences, like women are more sensitive and caring, whereas men are more competitive or more physically aggressive are largely consistent with the research, there are more psychological similarities than differences between men and women. Even when a statistical difference implies that groups are not equal, that still leaves plenty of room for similarities between individuals from both groups. For example, men are generally taller than women, but many women in the world are taller than most men [2]. The same cognitive bias misleads us when we explain that for example, younger generations can’t read paper maps.

Many solutions we put in place make our aspirations on diversity even worse. For example, introducing formal quotas for women into a system that requires them to behave more like incompetent men to succeed will not correct people’s unfair stereotypes of female leaders. We tend to jump to the wrong conclusion when reading research literature: it is not the gender or generational diversity that drives business results but an underlying factor: skill diversity.

A vast majority of companies use competency modelling. If you are one of them, you are part of the problem. It is an understandable corporate story that we have to make the best use of our human resources, and we have to identify precisely who to invest in, and how. Namely, whom we call talented or high potential. Thus, the  practice of competency modelling has become increasingly popular in the past decades. The idea is to define excellent performance in a job in terms of the right grouping of a wide variety of traits, skills, capabilities, knowledge, behaviours and responsibilities. Competencies are the language used to describe employee performance and potential, and they are expected to create clear linkages to organizational effectiveness. Competencies became the lens through which the company sees its people, understands them, and values them.

In reality, each of us has her own definition, for example, for proactivity or customer focus. We may say that our interpretation of an abstract quality is very diverse. It is hard to capture the existing range in the real world by identifying a particular skill that varies from person to person. It is impossible to prove or disprove that everyone who excels in a particular job possesses a particular set of competencies. It is equally impossible to show that people who acquired the competencies they lacked outperformed those who did not [3].

If we think about it, assessing people on competencies does not push us in the direction of diversity. It does just the opposite: it pushes us towards a non-existing, imaginary idol and forces us to be similar to it and makes us uniform. It partly explains why we can’t make substantial progress. We go with full throttle but have not released the handbrake. And the result is a lot of dust that blocks clear view.

We can consider some options that may help us achieve better outcomes:

  • Firstly, it is not the diversity that we have to resolve, but leadership efficiency. We should focus on selecting better leaders, as this step would also take care of gender imbalance. Putting more women in leadership roles does not necessarily improve the quality of leadership, whereas putting more talented leaders into leadership roles will increase the representation of women. We may argue that standards are unfairly high for female leaders, but we could reverse the argument: standards for male leaders are not high enough. We should not lower the bar when we select women, but we should raise them when we choose men!
  • Secondly, if we really want to transform workplaces into a diverse one, we should not push employees towards fictional competencies but help them identify their individual talents, encourage them to build on them, understand how they contribute to performance and what paths are possible next. Rating competencies make people feel like they’ve been dealt with. Addressing their strengths and uniqueness makes them feel understood.
  • Thirdly, when we create a single story, and we show it to people as the only possibility, we’ll all identify with it. Our brain is overly vulnerable to a single story. Providing a single option is just to convince the other about our truth. Stories sell, but data tells. We shouldn’t make a fuss only about differences we feel are important. It is more efficient to build on the similarities. Instead of building our stories around unreliable data, we can give another story: let’s not discriminate against gender as it is simply not fair. Let’s not discriminate against ethnic groups as it is simply not fair. Let’s not discriminate against age as it is simply not fair.



[1] Janet S. Hyde, “Gender Similarities and Differences”, Annual Review of Psychology 65, no. 3 (2014)

[2] Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, “Why do so many incompetent men become leaders?”, Harvard Business Review Press, Chapter 5, 2019

[3] Marcus Buckingham, Ashley Goodall, “Nine lies about work”, Harvard Business Review Press, Lie #4, 2019

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