What Can Improve Diversity (Hint: It’s not quotas or unconscious bias)

Diversity can be a sensitive (and even sometimes uncomfortable) topic. Mindfulness can help employees be open to these important conversations.

It is a global challenge to truly embrace diversity in workplaces. Iris Bohnet, a Harvard professor, shared in an interview with McKinsey that about $8 billion a year is spent on diversity training in the United States alone but not a single study found that it actually leads to more diversity. Yet, we know diversity matters: companies in the top quartile for racial/ethnic and gender diversity were more likely to have financial returns above national industry mean.

While correlation does not mean causation, Bersin’s research sheds some light on why it works: Organisations with more inclusive cultures are six times more likely to be innovative, to anticipate change and respond effectively, three times more likely to be high performing and twice as likely to meet or exceed financial targets.

There are strong benefits to diversity and inclusion (D&I) and the good news is, 71% of organisations aspire to be inclusive. In fact, 150 global CEOs recently signed an agreement to advance D&I in the workplace by expanding on unconscious bias training initiatives. Yet, studies have shown that diversity programmes, such as mandatory unconscious bias training, have poor returns.

“Laboratory studies [about unconscious bias training outcomes] show that this kind of force-feeding can activate bias rather than stamp it out. Try to coerce me to do X, Y, or Z, and I’ll do the opposite just to prove that I’m my own person.” – Harvard Business Review, Why Diversity Programmes Fail

This leads us to an important question: If diversity programmes don’t work, then what else can leaders do to advance D&I?

Mindfulness and Mind-sets

The evidence on the failures of unconscious bias training suggests that it is less about bias but more about people’s mind-sets towards diversity. Changing mind-sets, however, is an uphill task.

“Because even though you and I might agree now that we will be inclusive tomorrow, it is hard to follow through on those virtuous intentions.” – McKinsey, Focusing on what works for workplace diversity

This is where mindfulness can come in – it can help people to engage in authentic conversations about difficult diversity topics, guard against shutting down (our way of coping with discomfort) and keep an open, curious and non-judging orientation to any diversity experience. All of which, are important to create shared meaning and mutual understanding with diverse groups of people, and eventually change attitudes towards diversity.

Typically, workplaces are filled with fear, threat or shame, which inhibits learning from diverse groups of people. As Patricia Thompson recounts, people are uncomfortable when they look within themselves, dig deeper into their biases and are made to talk about it during diversity trainings. But mindfulness can instigate a safe, non-judgemental and compassionate environment that will facilitate a more efficient learning process about each other.

“It is not only about changing behaviours for diversity. It is more than just to play nice, share candy and not bite other people.” – Chade-Meng Tan, Google’s Jolly Good Fellow, Author of Search Inside Yourself

3 Ways Mindfulness Can Help Diversity Work

In a nutshell, mindfulness opens people up to new possibilities. After all, it is broadly defined as moment-to-moment awareness and attention with a non-judgemental acceptance.

To Ellen Langer, a Harvard social psychologist, mindfulness can “help us to see problems more holistically and to speak with others in ways that can yield fresh, fuller, and more deeply shared understandings.” When we are mindful, we notice what is new or different in the particular context and we allow ourselves to openly receive different signals, even those at odds with our previous experience. Mindful people are also able to just notice and hold an observation without judgement.

According to Langer, there are at least three different ways mindfulness can contribute to an inclusive organisation:

1. Be Alert  to Multiple Perspectives

By not considering other alternatives, we often keep ourselves blind to choices we might otherwise accept from diversity discussions. One key is to notice without judgement; to pay attention to what is directly observable and distance ourselves from making an inference or drawing a conclusion. When we do that, we are less likely to get caught up in making judgements that antagonise others, which makes it harder for people to speak up as they are fearful of negative evaluation.

Action: Use questions, framed to connect (not confirm assumptions), to foster learning and understanding. Put the quality of interaction above anything else and be present with them without making judgements. The focus is on making it psychologically safe for people to speak up and this can be difficult, especially in hierarchical environments.

2. Remove Fixation

We fail to recognise that our experiences condition us to see some things (and fixate on it) but not others. Others may perceive differently and when they sense that others don’t share the same perceptions, it is difficult for them because they are afraid of looking foolish by speaking out. Mindfulness can help as it requires us to step aside from our own framing and seeing it from the perspectives of others.

Action: Be consciously aware to not look for information that is consistent with our beliefs but rather, listen intently and make sense from their perspectives. Information at odds with our experience may be unfamiliar or even uncomfortable but being mindful allows people to create psychological distance from these feelings. The increased exposure to such unfamiliar stimuli increases liking for others.

3. Disclose Implicit Beliefs

Disclosing our own assumptions, interests, feelings or biases about diversity potentially provides a valuable way to build shared meaning. When we share such deep-reaching content, it shows our readiness to engage in difficult conversations: to listen and to recognise the differences in perceptions between people. Such levels of disclosing can be uncomfortable but without such efforts, it is difficult to have authentic conversations and learn from each other. Being mindful allows people to disclose without judgements or self-justification but with the intention to solely inform the conversation and make for richer and deeper understandings.

Action: Begin first by disclosing if you wish to understand another’s perceptions – it shows that we are willing to be vulnerable and that builds trust. But also focus on building a level of safety for ourselves and others by making sure to steer clear of adverse judgements and speaking truly.

None of this is easy, but it is possible – Google, and several other companies, have shown just that. Specific to diversity, Google’s engineers reported—after going through mindfulness practice -- to being more understanding of cultural differences and better able to defuse emotions and listen to others.  In addition, they have also reported that it has helped their careers. In fact, research has shown that brief mindfulness meditation – even for just ten minutes – can significantly make people more aware of their emotions which caused them to show less implicit bias.

If mindfulness is an enabler to D&I, how can organisations build a mindful workforce and where should they begin?

Designing a Mindful Workforce

Begin by getting a small group of employees to buy-in by connecting mindfulness with competencies tied to business goals and career success, as proposed by Chade-Meng Tan, Google’s Jolly Good Fellow. Help employees connect the dots by establishing how mindfulness is not just “nice” but also essential for success at work.

For example, emotional intelligence, specifically emotional regulation, can be improved through mindfulness. If one’s work is involved with building a team, customer intimacy or coaching/mentoring, it is essential to be great at building trust.  Emotional intelligence is central to that. Therefore, mindfulness can have a direct implication on career success.

To Tan, it begins with creating the awareness and desire for individuals to adopt mindfulness practices by addressing their WIIFM (What’s In It For Me) as part of effective change management. That is followed up with a series of steps to augment the change management process:

  • Empower these individuals with evidence on mindfulness outcomes (job performance, well-being, etc.) and knowledge on how to practise mindfulness
  • Generate short wins by displaying results in a timely manner to the participants and onlookers
  • Develop a programme with this pilot group of individuals
  • Scale the programme to the rest of the organisation and repeat the process

These practices can also be augmented by designing organisations’ environments to support mindfulness at work. According to research at Singapore Management University (SMU), organisational constraints such as task routineness, role ambiguity or lack of resources will use more of employees’ mental energy to deal with a constrained situation, leaving them with fewer resources at their disposal. In a diversity sense, they are left with little to engage in authentic conversations. Limiting these constraints can offer the right conditions for employees to remain mindful at work. Organisations can also support mindfulness at work by giving employees job autonomy and supervisor support, which are significantly related to employee awareness.

But for any change to be effective, active and visible leadership sponsorship is critical. In getting buy-in for any mindfulness initiative, present a broad range of benefits in connection to business outcomes-- beyond diversity-- to garner sufficient executive interest. Other prominent benefits of mindfulness include:

  • Increased task performance
  • Productivity savings (Aetna saved $3000-per-employee as mindfulness participants each gained an average of 62 minutes in productivity per week!)
  • Increased employee creativity
  • More likely to exhibit organisational citizenship behaviours (OCBs) – helping behaviours outside of their primary responsibilities
  • Reduced deviant behaviours
  • Reduced emotional exhaustion and subsequently, reduced turnover intentions
  • Increased emotional intelligence (closely related to customer intimacy and other organisational benefits)
  • Authentic leadership - Research is beginning to explore how mindfulness can facilitate authenticity

Mindfulness Is Not a Panacea, But an Enabler

We know there is a business case for diversity: there is a statistically significant relationship between diversity and better financial performance. Unconscious bias training is important to create sufficient and necessary interventions: its initiatives should continue to expand but it is insufficient to attain meaningful diversity goals. Besides, the broader goal of diversity goes beyond meeting workforce composition goals but to create organisations with workforce interactions that truly reflect the ‘spirit of diversity’.

Perhaps, what’s missing is the consciousness and awareness of our bias, instead of just knowing that they exist. Let’s be mindful of it in our daily micro-interactions-- from hiring practices to everyday authentic conversations to deliver an end-to-end experience that makes a truly inclusive organisation.

Mindfulness can be the enabling piece to the diversity puzzle – all the pieces must come together and mindfulness can be the piece to augment current diversity efforts such as unconscious bias training. Although evidence is anecdotal at this stage, mindfulness perhaps may be central to truly embracing diversity in organisations – where it is not about seeing people as one but mindfully accepting the differences between them.

“I argue that mindfulness can make this [see more similarities with other people] more likely to happen, because if you are more open to the experience, there is a greater opportunity to listen without judgement, feel empathy for others, recognize commonalities and build those deeper connections.” – Dr. Patricia Thompson, Corporate Psychologist

Other Lessons Learnt [Author’s Note]

  • How to begin being mindful: Begin with yourself. It is difficult to fully understand how mindfulness works without experiencing it yourself. To truly convince others of mindfulness, one needs to first convince themselves on the profound impact of mindfulness.
  • Secular in nature: Mindfulness does not require or promote spiritual or religious beliefs and traditions. It can be practised by people with or without any kind of religious beliefs.
  • Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) is an established programme that organisations have started with. It primarily focuses on stress and well-being outcomes but mindfulness practices extend beyond those outcomes.
  • Mindful leadership is an oft-discussed leadership topic in recent times: leading with purpose and meaning.
  • How to quantify diversity within your organisation or team? One way to do this is by using the Herfindahl-Hirschman index (HHI)


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