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The Importance of Diversity and Inclusion for High-Performing Teams

Adeline de Oliveira
Group of 5 workers wearing safety helmets and jackets, standing next to each other and looking into the distance

The fact that we’re still debating the value of a diverse and inclusive workforce is painful, given the clear differentiator true diversity is. Effective efforts that engage with groups that are highly represented, as well as groups that are underrepresented, will lead to a more cohesive, dynamic, and above all winning workplace.

Forbes

Imagine a symphony in which every instrument plays the same note, in the same way, at the same cadence. The result would be monotonous, without depth or richness. Now imagine that same symphony in which each instrument brings its own color and melody, creating a complex and beautiful harmony. That's how a diverse and inclusive team works.

Diversity and inclusion are two terms we've heard more and more in recent years. But make no mistake about it. They're not fads, nor are they just concepts to be ticked off a list of corporate values. They are vital forces that, over and above ethical responsibility, transform the company into a humane, dynamic, innovative, and high-performance workplace.

This article highlights the importance of these two often-mentioned but rarely-understood words and shows you how to apply them on a daily basis to create a professional environment where every voice has its place and can contribute to outstanding collective performance.

Key takeaways:

  • Diverse teams are more innovative, offering a wide range of perspectives that lead to creative solutions.
  • Inclusion enhances decision-making processes by considering multiple viewpoints, leading to well-rounded and effective outcomes.
  • A culture of diversity and inclusion fosters higher employee engagement, satisfaction, and loyalty.
  • Organizations that prioritize diversity and inclusion are viewed more favorably, attracting top talent and loyal customers.
  • Inclusive teams perform better, contributing to the overall success and competitiveness of the organization.

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Understanding diversity and inclusion in the workplace

Diversity refers to a wide range of human differences (ethnic origins, gender, age, physical and mental abilities, sexual orientation, religious and spiritual beliefs, cultural and socio-economic background, professional experience, etc.).

On the other hand, inclusion in the workplace means creating an environment where everyone, regardless of their differences, feels considered, respected, supported and has the same opportunities to participate. An inclusive culture eliminates divisions by focusing on differences and valuing employees' unique contributions.

Two concepts that complement each other

Diversity concerns the composition of the organization and how these different characteristics are represented among team members, while inclusion refers to how these characteristics are integrated and valued within the organization. 

These two concepts are complementary. Diversity without inclusion can lead to imbalances and feelings of exclusion among the employees concerned. Conversely, inclusion without diversity misses the multiple perspectives and ideas that diverse groups can bring. 

A diverse and inclusive group combines the richness of differences with the strength of integration, providing a workplace where every profile can flourish and contribute fully. 

Here's a fictional example illustrating diversity and inclusion issues: 

A company proudly displays photos of its diverse workforce on its website and advertising campaigns. In reality, employees from minority groups are mainly present in subordinate, non-decision-making roles. Management positions are predominantly held by individuals from homogeneous backgrounds. Efforts to promote diverse employees to positions of responsibility are virtually non-existent. 

Therefore, diversity within the company is superficial, with no real impact on strategic decision-making. The employees concerned feel a lack of consideration and opportunities for advancement, which affects their motivation, productivity, and loyalty to the company.

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Why are diversity and inclusion so important? 

Benefits for companies

  • Innovation and creativity: Teams of members with different characteristics, personalities, and experiences can share ideas and knowledge. This wealth of perspectives stimulates creativity and leads to innovative propositions.  
  • Improved decision-making: Diverse team members bring more information and viewpoints. They can better question assumptions and consider alternatives, leading to more balanced and informed decisions.  
  • Financial performance: Diverse companies are more likely to experience financial outperformance than those that are more homogeneous. This is because they benefit from a wide range of skills and perspectives, enabling them to better meet customer needs and adapt to market changes.
  • Talent attraction and retention: A company that values diversity and inclusion is perceived as an employer of choice. It attracts more talent, which enriches its internal skill set. Moreover, employee engagement is stronger in an organization where they feel integrated and supported, thus reducing turnover and the cost of recruiting and training new recruits.
  • Better problem-solving: Our variety of perspectives and experiences enables us to better identify obstacles, approach problems from different angles, and propose innovative solutions to overcome them.

The most diverse companies are now more likely than ever to outperform less diverse peers on profitability.

McKinsey

Benefits for human beings

  • Sense of belonging: Employees feel valued, integrated, and respected in an inclusive environment. This sense of belonging and legitimacy enables them to express themselves, show initiative, and help others. In other words, teams are more motivated, productive, and loyal.
  • Personal development: Working in a diverse group enriches people's skills and perspectives. It also encourages the development of intercultural communication, knowledge, and skills. Interaction between colleagues from different backgrounds also enhances empathy and understanding of others.
  • Justice and equality: Promoting diversity and inclusion in the workplace is also about justice and equality. It's about ensuring that everyone, regardless of background or personal characteristics, has a fair chance to succeed and contribute. Creating an environment where everyone is treated with fairness and respect is key to building an ethical and responsible corporate culture.  

True belonging occurs in the workplace when team members have mutually deep connections with each other. They don’t feel the need to code-switch or conform to socially constructed expectations.

Forbes

Infographic with 3 boxes of content, each one showing a statistic related to the benefits of diversity in a team

Top challenges of diversity and inclusion

Resistance to change

Fear of the unknown, lack of knowledge, and loss of control may make employees and managers reluctant to change their entrenched mindsets and habits. They may fear that these initiatives will disrupt their routines and call into question their values and skills, creating anxiety and discomfort.  

Unconscious biases

Unconscious biases are involuntary prejudices, often based on cultural and social stereotypes, influencing people's behavior. They can lead to discriminatory decisions and exclusive behavior. Overcoming our own biases requires awareness and a deliberate effort to correct them, which can be difficult and inconvenient. 

Lack of experience

Lack of experience in diversity and inclusion can lead to a lack of understanding of good practice and the benefits of these initiatives. People without adequate training may not know how to recognize unconscious bias and participate in an inclusive environment.  

Diversity itself

Although beneficial and necessary, team diversity can also be a source of conflict precisely because of the differences between group members (age, religion, cultural backgrounds, values, etc.). These differences can lead to misunderstandings and tensions.

Discussions on diversity can often be challenging. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Accepting some of the discomfort (and even the pushback) that can come with embracing diversity will help unify your team as you seek to become a more empowered group of diverse individuals. And at the end of the day, these efforts will benefit everyone – underrepresented or not.

Forbes

How to create an inclusive and diverse team

Commitment of management 

  • Adopt inclusive behaviors, actively support diversity initiatives, and promote an inclusive culture by fostering women and ethnic representation in management teams.
  • Take specific training courses on unconscious bias, the importance of inclusion, and its many benefits for the company. 
  • Communicate openly about the importance of diversity.
  • Recognize the contributions of all employees.
  • Encourage cultural awareness and inclusive practices at all levels of the organization.

Recruitment and selection

  • Define clear diversity and inclusion objectives.
  • Use inclusive language in job advertisements.
  • Diversify recruitment channels (sites, networking, professional organizations, universities, community groups, etc.).
  • Use fair selection processes (anonymous CVs, standardized assessments, diversified interview panels, etc.).
  • Train human resources in unconscious bias.
  • Adopt inclusive and fair recruitment policies.
  • Evaluate candidates based on their skills and potential.
  • Implement a recruitment process that is welcoming and accessible to all profiles.
  • Foster a culture of inclusion from day one for new employees. 

Policies and practices

  • Foster a working environment where every employee feels legitimate and respected, regardless of personal characteristics.  
  • Develop policies that support diversity and inclusion (e.g., flexible leave, training, parental leave, wellness initiatives).
  • Ensure pay equity and promotion opportunities for all employees.
  • Create Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) to support, promote inclusion, and advise the company on diversity issues.
  • Make workplaces accessible and suitable for employees with special needs.  
  • Implement and enforce a zero-tolerance policy towards all forms of discrimination and harassment.  
  • Offer professional development opportunities for all employees.

The importance of the manager for inclusiveness and diversity in a team 

The United States Census Bureau estimates that the majority of the U.S. working-age population (those 18 to 64 years old) will identify as members of non-white racial and ethnic groups by 2039. Those with limited practice in leading people with different experiences, needs, and perspectives will have a steep hill to climb.

Harvard Business Review

While executives are responsible for defining the company's strategic vision and overall objectives in terms of diversity and inclusion, managers are the key players who implement and live these values daily:

Operational implementation

Managers are responsible for implementing these policies and strategies at the operational level. They must adapt the general guidelines to their teams and ensure that day-to-day practices correspond to the values of diversity and inclusion.  

Direct impact on employees

Managers' behavior, decisions, and management style directly influence their teams' well-being, motivation, and engagement. As key points of contact, their ability to effectively manage diversity and promote inclusion is crucial to the success of corporate initiatives.

Responsibility and responsiveness

Managers must be attentive to their employees' needs and concerns. They are often the first to identify problems and must intervene quickly to resolve conflicts and provide support. 

Another important point is that they must be proactive in creating an inclusive work environment, taking daily steps to value and integrate the contributions of the entire team.

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4 Key tips for effectively managing diverse teams 

If you feel like you’re struggling to manage a diverse mix of people on your team, fear not. Everyone has to begin somewhere, and it’s better to start now than never.

Culture Amp

Talking about diversity and inclusion isn't enough. Successful managers incorporate these essential notions into their team's management.

Who are the people who work under you every day? What are their priorities? Their expectations? Their obstacles? Their motivations? You must understand your employees for the group's well-being to facilitate collaboration and ensure everyone gives their best. 

Here are a few tips to help you manage diverse teams:

List of tips for managers to effectively lead a diverse team

1. Develop your soft skills

Active listening:

Every opinion is worth listening to at work, including those that differ from yours. Everyone needs to be able to express themselves and feel they have the space and freedom to do so.  

Take the time to listen without interruption, focusing on your employees' words and feelings. By doing so, you offer them a psychologically safe space for exchange and the opportunity to enlighten you with their unique experience and perspective.

Empathy:

Practice empathetic leadership. Try to put yourself in your colleagues' shoes, to understand their opinions, experiences, and emotions. Be compassionate, open, and supportive. 

Be vulnerable. Show that you, too, sometimes put on masks and that certain situations can be difficult to manage. Opening up and showing yourself as you are will help others feel they can do the same.  

Emotional intelligence: 

Self-awareness is one of the most important leadership skills. You need to understand and manage your emotions before you can understand and manage those of others. Knowing yourself better will also enable you to perceive and correct any prejudices and negative reactions toward certain workers.

Open, friendly communication:

Express your point of view calmly, without aggression or accusation.

Offer open communication channels where employees can express their concerns and needs without fear of judgment or repercussions. 

Encourage regular feedback and create discussion forums to address diversity and inclusion issues.

Most business leaders understand the diversity part of diversity and inclusion. They get that having a diverse workforce is important to customers and critical to succeeding in a global market. The inclusion part eludes them – creating an environment where people can be who they are, that values their unique talents and perspectives and makes them want to stay. The key to inclusion is understanding who your employees really are.

Harvard Business Review

Conflict management:

As mentioned above, managing a diverse team can bring its share of conflicts. Above all, ensure all stakeholders feel comfortable expressing their opinions and concerns. When problems arise, show that you're committed to finding fair solutions. 

If you play the role of mediator, remain neutral. Help the parties find common ground and work out mutually acceptable solutions.

Cultural intelligence:

Cultural intelligence is the ability to understand, respect, and adapt to cultural differences. It's the manager's responsibility; it's not the employee's to teach. 

Actively educate yourself about the different cultures represented in your team, for example, by taking specific training courses, reading about various cultural practices, or participating in cross-cultural experiences. Active listening and empathy are particularly useful in this respect.

When a leader demonstrates cultural competence, they respect cultural differences and recognize how those differences drive engagement, productivity, and innovation on their team and throughout their organization. Developing this level of fluency isn’t easy, and there is no finish line. It’s a lifelong process of self-assessment and curiosity.

Harvard Business Review

2. Hold regular one-on-one discussions

Hold regular one-on-one meetings with each group member. These face-to-face discussions provide a private space where employees can express themselves freely and confidently. They're also a great way to exchange ideas, get to know your staff better, and show that you're genuinely interested in them.

3. Give feedback and create personalized development plans

Give every team member constructive, personalized feedback on their work. In particular, remember to recognize their contributions and successes.

Develop individual development plans based on each employee's aspirations and skills, especially leadership development opportunities, to enable them to evolve, improve, and flourish at work. 

4. Be flexible and adaptable

Needs can vary considerably from person to person, which is why it's important to be flexible and adaptable when organizing your teams' work. This can include more flexible working hours, telecommuting options, or specific accommodations.

Diversity and inclusion: The foundations of collective success

We've been taught that there's strength in numbers. Add to that the differences, or uniqueness, of each individual, and you have considerable power. 

Far more than aspirations, diversity, and inclusion are imperatives for building high-performance, resilient teams. Companies must seize the opportunity without necessarily changing how they do business but rather by opening up and developing the cultural competencies of their employees at all levels. 

Adopting inclusive leadership means initiating meaningful change, celebrating diversity, and promoting equity by cultivating solidarity, tolerance, and respect. By doing so, the organization becomes a place where everyone can flourish, contribute, and be who they are.

By embracing these values, you're not only transforming your teams; you’re also laying the foundations for a more humane company, investing in the skills development of its managers for Industry 5.0, a work revolution that places people at the heart of innovation and productivity.

By building inclusive and supportive workplace cultures where diverse leaders and allies are truly heard, companies can chart a path towards impact beyond financial performance.

McKinsey

FAQ on diversity and inclusion in a team

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Adopt best practices for a more inclusive leadership

Being an inclusive leader contributes to building cohesive, high-performing teams. Our experts at Proaction International offer personalized coaching to help you learn and live these values everyday, in your organization.

Adeline de Oliveira

Adeline de Oliveira

Writer and editorial manager for about 15 years, Adeline de Oliveira is passionate about human behavior and communication dynamics. At Proaction International, she covers topics ranging from Industry 5.0 to operational excellence, with a focus on leadership development. This expertise enables her to offer insights and advice on employee engagement and continuous improvement of managerial skills.