If we’re going to achieve our goals of diversity and inclusion, we need to be prepared to sacrifice trust, harmony, and expedience—at least in the short term.

I don’t think that enough leaders are willing to do that.

Diversity Dilutes Trust

Diversity is hard on trust. As humans, we’re biased toward people who are like us and against people who are different. We’re lax on people who feel familiar and leery of people who feel foreign. We’re quick to open ourselves to those with shared characteristics and quicker to close down to those who’ve traveled a different path.

That’s a problem we need to talk about.

I’ve been writing all month about the importance of trust in teams. There’s plenty of evidence that greater trust supports productivity, collaboration, and retention. The problem is that if we drive single-mindedly toward high trust, we set ourselves back on the journey to diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Meeting full of white menI’ve seen it; teams that get to a high level of trust not by starting with diversity and working diligently to forge connections, but by starting with diversity and working diligently to cull anyone who doesn’t quickly toe the line. Sometimes managers terminate team members with a thinly veiled excuse that they’re “not a fit.” Other times, they make the environment so icy (or overtly hostile) that the person chooses to leave of their own accord.

I get it. When you’ve experienced what Stephen M. R. Covey calls the “speed of trust,” you want it all the time. You want the efficiency, the economy, the ease of working with a team where everyone gets along. You want the cohesive, conflict-free peace of a team that thinks alike. But, of course, as Walter Lipmann said, “When all think alike, no one is thinking very much.” So, be careful what you wish for.

When your team has racial, cultural, and national diversity, you might have someone who puts uncomfortable tension on your product roadmap, geographic footprint, or customer experience. But if you try to avoid that discomfort by assembling a homogenous team, you starve yourself of ideas and innovations that your customers crave and your business requires. You also shrink the pool from which you can source employees. Avoiding gender-, sexual-, physical-, or neuro- diversity does much the same.

Those aren’t the only forms of diversity you need. Start with those forms of diversity and go further—into the realm of diverse educations, experiences, personalities, and styles. Suppose you do bolster these types of diversity. In that case, you can bet that you’ll slow down and have more frequent conflict because there’s a greater likelihood that someone will see different opportunities or threats, spot otherwise hidden assumptions or gaps in the plan, or simply use a different process than you would. But avoiding that kind of diversity weakens your team, just as avoiding racial-, gender-, and neuro-diversity does.

Where From Here?

If the kind of superficial trust that comes from shared identity is not what we need, what’s the better option?

We need a path toward true, earned trust among a diverse group of people. That’s going to take effort. It will require getting to know one another well enough that we can finally identify shared perspectives among the divergent ones. It will take patience as we build confidence in methods that are different from our own and develop new approaches with the best bits from everyone. It will not come without a few stumbles and setbacks as we learn how to deliver for one another when it counts—and how to even communicate our expectations clearly. And it will take courage, integrity, and humility to admit and apologize when we offend, hurt, or undervalue one another.

Getting to true, deep, profound trust with a diverse team of people takes work. But, what a diverse, trusting team can accomplish makes it worth it.

Further Reading

Trust can’t come at the expense of diversity

The Echo Chamber

5 practices that bolster trust on your team