Federal Diversity Goals Are About High Performance, Not Compliance

It’s time to take advantage of our differences.

The vision of equal employment was born out of the civil rights movement, and officially began with an executive order from President Kennedy requiring government to hire qualified people regardless of their race, color, national origin, or creed. Fast-forward half a century to Executive Order 13583, which calls for “establishing a coordinated governmentwide initiative to promote diversity and inclusion in the federal workforce,” and the implementation of more comprehensive, integrated, and strategic diversity and inclusion programs are critical components of agency human resources strategies. The vision behind the order is nicely summarized in this excerpt:

“We are at our best when we draw on the talents of all parts of our society, and our greatest accomplishments are achieved when diverse perspectives are brought to bear to overcome our greatest challenges.”

The two orders represent the evolution of diversity and inclusion (D&I) in the United States -- preserving equal opportunity and removing inequity while maximizing the tremendous value of our identity differences.

A major impediment to this vision is that we’re bringing perspectives and tools to the D&I challenge that haven’t evolved in 40 years. We still think in terms of “black or white,” “male or female,” or “Christian or Jewish.” And yet identities include military status, language, sexual identity, age, work style, personality, marital status, education, socioeconomic status, political affiliation, and where we grew up.

All of these things make up who we are and the value we’re able to bring to organizations. And yet, D&I is still mostly treated as a compliance box for companies and government organizations to check, in these limited, protected categories. We’re missing the tools and strategies that get to the heart of President Obama’s more recent vision, which calls for leveraging our unique identities and differences in the name of building high-performing teams, inclusive cultures, and providing fantastic public service.

Below are three critical reasons for creating a modern, identity-based strategic D&I program within your agency.

1. Identity Barriers Hinder Mission Success

We need to stop pretending that there is a wall separating what happens in society and what happens in the workplace. Political conversations happen at work. Colleagues regularly gather to watch major news events in real-time that elicit strong reactions, whether it’s rulings on same-sex marriage or the shootings in Ferguson, Missouri, and Charleston, South Carolina. These reactions can lead to diversity tensions within teams, which inhibit communication, collaboration, and the sharing of ideas. These tensions kill creativity and performance, while fostering workplace cultures that can be hostile to certain individuals.

If a foreign-born software developer or a millennial fresh out of college doesn’t feel comfortable within a culture, it places devastating artificial limits on the talent that an agency is able to attract and retain. Identity tensions are going to happen, and having the tools in place to effectively navigate those tensions through open dialogue can be the difference between mission success and failure.

2. Differences Power Performance

After creating an open and inclusive culture that promotes collaboration and the free exchange of ideas, it’s time to take advantage of our differences.

Thomas Malone, a professor of management and an expert in organizational group intelligence at MIT, has devoted the past decade to studying collective intelligence -- or decision-making that emerges from the collaboration, collective efforts, and competition of many individuals. Malone’s research found that general cognitive ability (“intelligence”) actually exists for groups, and that group intelligence isn’t defined by the average intelligence of the people in the group, or even the maximum intelligence of the people in the group. In other words, just getting a lot of smart people in a room doesn’t necessarily make for a smart group.

It turns out that variety -- of identities, backgrounds, skills and perspectives -- is critical to collective intelligence, creativity and sound decision-making. By valuing our differences and crowdsourcing talent and ideas from a varied group of individuals, agencies can maximize performance. At the same time, forging a sense of unity based on our similarities is critical to developing an inclusive culture. In the federal workplace, these similarities include a shared sense of mission and a commitment to public service. We also develop connections with our colleagues when we tap into identity-related life experiences, including caring for an aging relative, a love of music and the arts, or shared enthusiasm for our favorite sports team.

3. Your Culture Drives Your Brand

The recent New York Times article about Amazon is a reminder that the perception of a workplace’s culture can have an impact on that organization’s brand. In the age of social media and Glassdoor ratings, it has never been easier for workplace tensions to go viral. The good news is that the opposite is also true. Word spreads about inclusive workplaces that embrace diversity and value collaboration. The goal is to be known as an organization where people from all walks of life can thrive, learn and grow. It comes down to culture and mission -- two of the biggest reasons why people choose to work for the federal government. Strategic D&I programs that embrace multiple identities help ensure that agencies have cultures capable of attracting and retaining the talent they need to be successful.

Looking Ahead

D&I has long been incorrectly positioned as a “nonessential” business initiative or “political correctness.” As we learn more about high-performing teams, however, it’s clear that D&I programs demonstrate strong return on investment that directly affects the success of organizations. In a recent interview, Ernst & Young Global CEO Mark Weinberger noted, “When you have teams that are diverse and inclusive, you absolutely have a higher quality product, better financial results and, frankly, a better environment within which to work.”

As we move into the future, D&I practitioners can help organizations challenge old assumptions and explore the use of technology as a means of fostering sustainable learning. Bruce Stewart, deputy director for diversity and inclusion federal government at the Office of Personnel Management, says, “What is needed is more autonomy and stronger professional development for D&I within the federal sector. It’s a profession, and over time those who practice it need to be held to high standards and be properly certified.” OPM’s REDI Roadmap and New Inclusion Quotient (New IQ) are enormous, important steps in the right direction as we look to evolve our perceptions of D&I across the federal government.

The bottom line is that in order to create a diverse and inclusive workplace, first-line supervisors and managers need tools that give them a 360-degree view of their employees, looking beyond the work they do and into who they are as individuals. Taking the next step and implementing this technology will not only improve mission success, but overall performance and reputation.

Mark Williams is a consultant on diversity and inclusion, public speaker and founder of WIN Insights, which has worked with clients ranging from Exxon Corp. to the Defense Department. He is the author of five books, including The Ten Lenses. Tim Lagan manages a team of industrial/organizational psychologists and technical trainers at Monster Government Solutions, providing workforce consulting services to public sector and commercial clients.

(Image via Andrey_Popov/