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How To Create a Workplace Culture That Truly Embraces Diversity

Andrew Adeniyi

Diversity is strength. Period. The numbers show that diverse teams perform better than their more homogeneous counterparts.

But just like any other objective, there are right and wrong ways to build a workplace culture that promotes diversity.

I’m Andrew Adeniyi, CEO of AAA Solutions and author of The Circle of Leadership: A Framework for Creating & Leveraging Culture. My mission is to empower leaders to build a culture that works for everyone, and I recently talked about this on the HR Superstars podcast.

Company culture starts with leadership

While a leader’s first instinct is often to empower their team to build a culture of diversity from the ground up in their daily actions, that’s not how you build culture. Author John Maxwell said it best in The 360 Degree Leader: “Everything rises and falls on leadership.”

I’ve seen this as well in my work. In organizations with poor culture, you can typically point at leadership—or a lack thereof—as the main cause

Employee engagement is essential to building and maintaining a company culture rooted in diversity and belonging, and companies with lackluster leadership generally have lower engagement.

As a leader looking to build that culture, that starts with a statement about how committed you are to promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion while acknowledging that you don’t have it all figured out yet—but you’re going to keep trying.

Feedback is a big part of this too, and leaders need to be ready to receive it. When Stefan Larson, former CEO of Ralph Lauren Polo, led Old Navy decades ago, he turned things around by going back to its core values. The biggest one? Innovation, a big part of why Old Navy was founded, wasn’t the norm when he became CEO.

To make innovation the norm again, Larson incentivized open sharing through systems and processes, added vehicles for getting feedback, and was transparent about acting on that feedback. All to return the company to that core value.

Your leaders need to do the same thing with diversity. It starts with them, but they need feedback from the team at large.

Encourage diverse viewpoints to create belonging

When people feel psychologically safe to speak up with their diverse opinions, they’ll start to feel like they belong. That’s essential for building a vibrant, diverse culture.

I’m a keynote speaker for a global CEO peer group organization and in one conversation, I was midway through a presentation on DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) when one individual spoke up, saying he didn’t “like this DEI stuff.” From his perspective, it was causing division rather than bringing people together. He asked me to explain why it was important.

First, to feel like he could even voice that opinion—far from a popular one—there had to be some significant psychological safety in that room. Second, the way that conversation ended demonstrated the culture of belonging I’m talking about. There was no shouting match, no awkward laughter, no complaints filed. He asked questions, I asked questions, we shared our perspectives, and we came to a common understanding.

That’s what you need to build. You want everyone in your organization, no matter where they are on the org chart, to feel safe enough to bring their perspective to the table, to push back when needed, and to share a competing viewpoint. Too many employees are scared to share opinions that go against an executive’s strong opinions, and that needs to change.

A big part of championing diversity is creating an environment where people aren’t afraid to speak their minds; they think more about sharing ideas that move the needle instead of playing it safe to maximize career growth.

Hire according to your values

When diversity becomes a priority for organizations, they have a tendency to overcorrect. Suddenly every hiring decision hinges on an applicant’s background and seminars about microaggressions get booked into everyone’s calendars before any conversations about what diversity means to your organization are had.

But just like you need to build the foundations of a diverse culture by covering the basics of diversity, equity, and inclusion before you dive into more complex topics like microaggressions, your hiring decisions need to go beyond an applicant’s background, their being differently-abled, or their gender identity.

Like, for instance, how their values align with yours.

Building a truly diverse culture is a long-term investment, full of consistent effort, and you need teammates to do that. The only way to keep those teammates around—beyond just compensating them justly—is to have alignment on values. If you work in a fast-paced environment where people are expected to move fast and break things, but you hire someone who’s looking for something more stable with a regular to-do list, your relationship isn’t going to last long.

When hiring the key players in your diverse workforce, ask them about their values. Match those against your organization’s values. Hire people who’ll be a good cultural fit. You’ll see your organization grow more diverse, with employees who feel like they belong, more than if you just went out trying to check boxes.

Remember the platinum rule

Every leader, both within and outside HR, knows about the golden rule: treat others the way you want to be treated. But while that’s a great place to start, it doesn’t really work in the workplace, especially if you want to build a strong culture of diversity.

There’s a simple reason for that; not everyone wants to be treated the same way. Your core values aren’t the same as someone else’s, your experiences have made you a different person, and your needs are different. So if you’re a leader who thrives on chaos and sees an opportunity in every problem, but the star player in your team needs more stability, the golden rule won’t be enough. You’ll make decisions that create more stress for that person without understanding why because you see things through the lens of your own experiences.

The platinum rule is at the core of everything DEI: treat people the way they want to be treated. By accounting for different experiences, backgrounds, and values, you can better understand what drives the people at your organization—and you’ll have what you need to build a diverse workforce.

Treat people the way they want to be treated. And be curious enough to find out what that actually means.

Build strength into your culture

A culture of belonging is essential for a workplace where anyone can bring their full self to work, where diversity of thought is encouraged, and where everyone pulls together towards a common goal. To do that, you need leaders that get the ball rolling, a workplace that safely engages with differing viewpoints, common values, and the platinum rule.

Then you can build something truly amazing.

About the Author

Andrew is the Founder and CEO of AAA Solutions, a Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) & Organizational Culture Consulting firm based out of the Greater Indianapolis, IN area. Andrew is a first-generation Nigerian American from South Bend, Indiana and obtained his bachelor’s degree in Entrepreneurship and Corporate Innovation from the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University Bloomington. He then went on to complete his Master of Science from Michigan State University in Management, Strategy & Leadership. With over 10 years of executive level management experience, Andrew has helped dozens of clients improve their diversity, employee engagement and overall sense of belonging within their organizations.