The U.S. Senate shows us how diversity works

A story about how an organization can be made not just more conscientious, but more effective


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As the government shutdown lurched into its second week, and federal employees nervously wondered when they might see their next paychecks, leadership was desperately needed.

Finally, in the Senate, one side declared that enough was enough. One side decided they would be the adults in the chamber. One side took the steps that, within weeks, would end the stalemate and get the federal government going again.

No, we’re not talking about the Democrats. Or the Republicans. We’re talking about the women.

Led by Susan Collins of Maine, a bipartisan group of women senators worked overtime to find a middle ground that would allow the government to reopen. And while the 20 women in the Senate didn’t represent enough votes to pass a bill on their own, they showed their colleagues the way.

As the number of women in its ranks has increased, many have applauded the emergence of a Congress that looks more like the population it represents. And while a more gender-balanced Congress is no doubt good for our conscience, the women-led resolution to the shutdown shows that this balance can also be good for our governance.

Diversity is frequently heralded as the right thing to do, and many organizations pursue diversity to be conscientious, yet this story shows how diversity can make an organization not just conscientious, but more effective.

Why is diversity – on boards, within teams, and at all levels of leadership – essential? What is it about difference that leads to higher levels of satisfaction, innovation, retention … and profit?

The power of difference comes from the variety of permissions that go along with it, each of which influences the workplace. Let’s look at a few.

• Permission for dissent. Dissent is a powerful organizational tool. We’ve all seen ideas, plans and decisions put forth by senior leadership get endorsed by others in the organization, not because they were particularly forward-thinking or wise, but because they were put forth by senior leadership. Difference within a team increases the odds that somebody will call out flawed logic or faulty execution, rather than go along with it, downplay it, or miss it altogether. Diversity can be an effective antidote to groupthink.

• Permission for work-life balance. Gender diversity often leads to less competitive and more cooperative approaches to managing time. In other words, an all-male group might get into ego-driven, who-can-stay-at-the-office-latest competitions, which can fuel resentment, burnout and decreased productivity. Women generally engage in more role variety, and having women in the mix gives everyone permission to engage in role variety, which studies reveal leads to greater job satisfaction and higher retention among all workers, and which encourages greater work-life balance.

• Permission for clear communication. The less the people you work with are just like you, the more carefully, consciously and clearly you communicate important information with them. Over time, the best teams do develop a shorthand and a shared vocabulary, but difference among a team discourages people from making assumptions about what others know. Practice in clear, thoughtful communication makes teams more prepared for future change, whether that change is growth or conflict.

• Permission for unique contributions. Finally, difference brings permission to bring your singular best, rather than bringing what everybody else on the team can contribute. When the hands at the wheel have different backgrounds and experiences, everyone is challenged to identify their unique strengths and consider what they have to bring that differs from others — and will make the team more complete.

Two key lessons emerge from the story of the shutdown resolution. The first is that Collins’s voice of dissent gave other senators permission to drop their combative stances and make an honest effort to find common ground.

The second lesson is that the women in the Senate, who don’t always agree politically, could come together to tackle a big challenge because they have been coming together regularly to work on smaller challenges.

Is there enough difference to make a difference in your organization?

Loretta L.C. Brady, an associate professor of psychology at Saint Anselm College and principal of BDS Insight, can be reached at loretta@bdsinsight.com. Eric Ratinoff, principal of The Mouse and the Elephant, can be reached at eric@mouseandelephant.com. Learn more about diversity and inclusion by connecting with A Seat at the Table on Facebook.

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