How Values Statements Support Diversity

employee benefits; recruitment and retention

Not long ago, my colleague Lucy English asked HR leaders assembled at our Solutions at Work LIVE Conference about culture - specifically, how focused their organizations are on it. The vast majority (84%) answered, "very."

That's no surprise. Positive culture is a cornerstone of organizational strategies - it even got an unexpected plug from Jimmy Kimmel earlier this year when the late night host followed his emotional story about a family crisis with a thank you to his supportive employer and "work family."

That kind of feel-good momentum is valuable to employers. It attracts people who are looking for their own work families. And there's no question that people who feel good about their employers do the kind of dynamic work that employers (and maybe more importantly, investors) feel good about.

The Double-Edge Sword of Culture

But Lucy also cautioned against an increasingly recognized pitfall of culture - namely the homogeny that comes at the expense of diversity. "Tightly conceived cultures can lose potential contributions," she wrote recently, "creating the unintentional side effect of becoming stagnant and exclusive."

That's a critical point because exclusivity is something we can ill afford. As leaders, we need to embrace multiple cultures within our organization all while still retaining and championing a solid core. But if the friend of productivity is culture, yet the enemy of diversity is homogeny, what exactly is the answer?

In a word (or two): values statements.

The Tall Order of Consensus

To see why, you have to go back to the value of diversity. It's not just window dressing. Research from McKinsey showed that diverse companies have higher returns. People of multiple backgrounds and life experiences generate ideas and perspectives that challenge the current order. "Having a diverse set of people really means you're much less likely to have blind spots," wrote a New York Times author recently. The alternative is a little like the definition of insanity - you have the same people asking the same questions over and over but expecting a different conclusion.

What you need are people who can inject a new way of thinking. But the same competing perspectives that spark innovation naturally lead to dissent. And that dissent comes with its own peril - so much so that a Harvard Business Review writer wrote recently that it keeps many diversity-driven ideas from ever making it to the implementation stage.

"While diverse team composition does seem to confer an advantage when it comes to generating a wider range of original and useful ideas," wrote Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic on HBR, "experimental studies suggest that such benefits disappear once the team is tasked with deciding which ideas to select and implement, presumably because diversity hinders consensus."

Going from Idea to Action 

And that's where values statements come in -- guiding the conversation to ensure that the benefits of diversity don't disappear. Complete consensus is indeed a tall order; but by providing ground rules, value statements can get you a long way to putting theories into action. At Bright Horizons, the HEART principles mandate Honesty, Excellence, Accountability, Respect, and Teamwork. They take nothing from the content of what I like to call those fierce conversations; but they provide guidelines on behavior when having them. The "what" isn't diminished, but the "how" gets some instruction...the moral compass that gets from dissent to implementation.

It's not a panacea. But it would be a shame to waste all that ingenuity. And as we look for the answer to balancing culture and diversity, and to preserving one without sacrificing the other...

In guiding how we dissent...values statements can give us both.

Written by: Helen Zarba

About the Author

Helen Zarba at Bright Horizons

As Vice President, Organizational Development & Learning Services, Helen oversees the corporate Learning and Development Function at Bright Horizons and is also responsible for maximizing the impact of the enterprise-wide integrated talent management suite. Helen has played a pivotal development role at Bright Horizons for eight years and previous to that worked in senior HR and Learning and Development roles in domestic, European, and EMEA environments for BMW, Gillette and P&G. Helen is passionate about increasing the strategic impact of learning and development interventions, and exploring the use of technology to replicate the power of a high touch culture.