Why a Little Friction at Work is a Good Thing

Why a Little Friction at Work is a Good Thing

During Pride Month we’re exploring how unconscious biases affect our ability to embrace diversity and we’re tapping experts to share how we can create more inclusive workplaces. What do you do to overcome your bias? #diversityisbeautiful

If your team meetings are a little like a food fight, with ideas thrown around the room and everyone joining in, that might be a good thing. Here’s why: research shows that diverse teams — where not everyone likes peanut butter and jelly on white bread — are stronger. They make better decisions, innovate more, understand their customers’ perspectives better, and might even make themselves smarter. But all these benefits don’t just happen because you hire a diverse team. You’ve got to create a space for dissenting opinions, make sure everyone feels like they can talk, and embrace the exchange of ideas — even though it may get messy.

That’s a tall order, and it starts with confronting unconscious bias in the office, because that’s why diverse ideas often get silenced. To understand how bias plays out at work and what we can do to overcome it, we talked to some experts. We asked them how to embrace diversity and how to recognize when bias keeps people from speaking up or sticking around.

Embrace the Food Fight — and Diversity

Jeff Vijunco, vice president of Global Talent at Adobe, is a proponent of “culture complement” over “culture fit,” meaning that it’s important to find people who add a new dimension to a team. Here’s how he describes it: “When I look at a team, I think, is it more emblematic of a stack or a puzzle? A stack is a lot of the same, a puzzle is where there’s a lot of creative friction and the pieces complement one another. When I think about cultural complement, and I think about a meeting, it should almost resemble a food fight — I mean that in a healthy way. You have the psychological and organizational safety to speak your mind and you go at it. It’s a good thing, as long as you attack issues, not people.”

Beyond productive friction, Larissa Shapiro, head of diversity, at Mozilla, argues that diversity is good for our brains. “Diversity makes us smarter. When we prepare for a meeting and we know it’s going to be a very diverse group, or everybody in this room is going to have a different native language, or we’re explaining something to people who don’t have the background info, we work harder. We explain ourselves more clearly, we share our ideas more fully, and then we have a robust, respectful discussion that may not be in agreement but it’s a respectful discussion. Our work is better.”

When you think of diversity, you probably consider race, gender, nationality, and sexuality but in reality, it goes deeper than that. “I think where you grew up, the generation you identify with, and the experiences you’ve had add a rich and unique perspective,” says Chris Hall, vice president and general manager of Customer Experience at Adobe. “Our job is to build products and services for people from all of these backgrounds so we want to be sure we’ve got a diverse set of voices at the table.” According to Chris, a team with many different backgrounds and experiences means a wealth of ideas you’d miss in a room full of like-minded people.

Don’t Let Bias Squash Diversity

Getting a diverse group together in a room isn’t enough, though. Experts say we’re prone to missing out on people’s perspectives, because we often start with unconscious biases about who’s going to speak up, or whose ideas are valuable. Caroline Simard, senior director of Research at The Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University, explained a situation many of us have encountered: “You have a lot of cases where somebody doesn’t fit the dominant group stereotype and they say something and nobody picks up on their idea. Then somebody else, who fits the dominant group stereotype, says the idea and we think it’s great.”

Stereotypes can also shape who speaks up in meetings. Larissa says, “If you have people in a meeting and one or two of them are dominating the conversation, they are the ones whose ideas are always considered relevant, whose ideas are valued. And oftentimes, people from groups that are less represented in the company, and introverts, and people for whom English is a second language, are not the people talking. You’re not getting the value of their ideas. And if you’re not heard — literally in this case, you don’t feel respected, and you’re not as likely to stick around.”

Get People to Stick Around Instead of Moving On

Even though companies may hire with diversity in mind, they can lose people if they don’t feel their opinions are heard or wanted. “If you’re trying to contribute and nobody ever acknowledges or values what you’re saying,” explains Caroline, “there’s nothing that will make you update your resume faster.”

This is why Larissa encourages companies to go beyond measuring diversity in hiring, and focus on retention, too. “I would say that if you don’t take a critical look at the culture in your company, and make sure it’s welcoming and not unintentionally preventing progress for diverse people, they’ll just come out the other side.”

Even when employees don’t leave, the negative impacts of bias accumulate over time and can eventually impact the diversity of your leadership team. Caroline explains: “When people fit our stereotype, we are more likely to assume they are good at whatever the stereotype is, and when people don’t fit the stereotype, they have to work harder to prove that they can do it. In the workplace, it creates a cumulative disadvantage for those who don’t fit the dominant stereotype. A little bit of bias in one instance may not feel like a big deal, but when you have it happen at every turn throughout the course of a career, it can really lead to significant under representation.”

Lead with Vulnerability and Authenticity

All of these factors make it especially critical for leaders to actively encourage contributions from everyone, especially the people most likely to keep their opinions and ideas to themselves. “If leaders aren’t consciously making sure that the contrarian has a chance to speak or the introvert has the floor, some of the most important voices for solving the problem are never heard. I try, and really encourage my leaders to make sure that, as we are running meetings, we’re actively soliciting input from people who haven’t had a chance, or don’t naturally weigh in,” explains Chris.

“We want to teach each other how to respect and appreciate difference because it’s an asset, it’s what we want,” adds Larissa. “It’s really hard to build a culture where constructive criticism is valued, where people feel safe to participate as their whole selves.”

According to Chris, one key to helping employees feel like they can express their ideas is for leaders to be vulnerable, so others feel they have permission to do the same. “I think the only way I can change other people’s opinions and help them uncover some of their biases, is just to be my most authentic self,” she says. “As someone in a leadership position that doesn’t fit perfectly in the tech executive mold, I think an important piece of it is just to be me. That actually helps dispel some biases people may have built up.”

Perhaps one of the most fundamental challenges is to help some people who fit a dominant stereotype realize that diversity is an asset, not a threat. This can be tough, and even painful. As Larissa explains, “When someone’s had privilege and hasn’t been aware they had it, and someone comes along and says, ‘You have pie and I want some pie,’ they might first think, ‘But then I won’t have pie.’ They’ll feel like you’re telling them that they’re bad or did something wrong.” She adds, “I try to get them to realize this is challenging, it’s challenging for everybody, but it will make us better. We have to try.”

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