By Kayla Andrews
‘Diversity of thought’ seems like an ancient phrase in 2023. In the last few years, we’ve moved well beyond that performative, well-meaning, laissez-faire phrase that ruled corporate spaces for so long. Today, we talk about diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in a way that bypasses good intentions and charges us to be intentional about its implementation.
Still, in most corporate spaces in America, you can’t escape the inevitable whiteness of most rooms you walk into. As a black woman, I know that I’ll likely be one of few who look like me– if not the only one. But maybe not even 5 years ago, that homogeny would be justified by the “diversity of thought” represented in the room. What companies who use that phrase mean is they haven’t created a diverse workplace, but because all humans have different experiences, diversity can still be found among the ideas presented in the room. Unfortunately, that’s not enough.
What drives DEI as a business imperative is the simple fact that a variety of thoughts, experiences, and ideas almost always yield the most innovative and successful results. In fact, businesses that commit to creating a diverse workforce are 36% more profitable than less diverse companies according to a 2020 Mckinsey study. So then we do want diversity of thought, but it gets tricky. We all know it’s a slippery slope– that phrase. What is diversity of thought? How do you know you have it? And can you achieve it in a room of people who look the same?
To solve this mystery of DEI, let’s take a detour into the world of young adult fiction novels of the 2010s. (Hint hint: a Gen Zer is writing this blog.) In the widely popular novel by John Green, The Fault in Our Stars, the teen protagonist Hazel Grace is fighting the good fight against thyroid cancer and explains to her also cancer-diagnosed boyfriend, Augustus, that their time is limited. She profoundly explains it this way:
“There are infinite numbers between 0 and 1. There’s .1 and .12 and .112 and an infinite collection of others. Of course, there is a bigger infinite set of numbers between 0 and 2, or between 0 and a million. Some infinities are bigger than other infinities…”
In the same way that the infinity between 0 and a million is bigger than the infinity between 0 and 1, perhaps the diversity of thought among a boardroom of people from ethnically, culturally, and socially diverse backgrounds is bigger than the diversity of thought present in a boardroom of white people. We want diversity of thought, but we have to be specific in what that looks like otherwise we’re justifying the status quo.
Diversity of thought speaks to the idea that people of different backgrounds can bring something new to the table that makes us change our perspective. Whether that different background is race, family structure, experience level, or even professional past, when someone comes from a perspective that you didn’t have before, value is added.
A good indicator of diversity of thought is a disruption of the status quo. True diversity of thought will challenge an old process, ask questions no one has asked, or request new resources to fill in a gap that you didn’t know was there. Innovation may not always come in the package of a sparkly new idea. It often comes through difficult conversations between a disruptor and someone who has done something the same way for decades.
But on the other side of that challenge is a better outcome, a more profitable organization, and a company that appeals to a wider audience.
So there is a way that ‘diversity of thought’ can be achieved in a 2023 DEI-conscious way. But we should be specific in what it means, intentional about achieving it, and hesitant to use the phrase loosely. The next time you hear the phrase, ask yourself, are we challenging the status quo by creating a space in which all perspectives are heard, understood, and acknowledged? Are we committed to expanding our expertise by being receptive to others? If the answer is yes, well, that’s when you know ‘diversity of thought’ is no longer just a buzzword phrase.