Much of the talk about valuing diversity in the world of business is just talk. One of the most positive things business leaders have done in the past few decades is to open the doors to people who were traditionally excluded. This progress, although not as fast or as widespread as it should be, is heartening.
Still, the true treasures of diversity in the marketplace have yet to be tapped. I’m talking about divergent voices.
Leaders are paid to be right. Therefore, they have a vested interest in making sure that their opinions prevail, in appearing confident and sure of themselves. They don’t relish being contradicted, especially in our lockstep Industrial Age tradition. It’s the rare leader who is excited to encounter disagreement or resistance.
But to be successful in the Information Age, leaders need to adopt just the opposite mindset. They need to do more than just tolerate diverse views—they must actively seek them out.
It’s only natural to react defensively when faced with someone who disagrees with you, even when they mean well. But the identities of too many leaders are intertwined with their need to have all the answers. There is great wisdom in training the mind to respond to disagreement in entirely the opposite way: Welcome it, embrace a diversity of viewpoints and jump at the chance to hear from someone who sees the world differently.
This does not mean we have to agree or compromise in any fashion. But for our own good, we need to hear opposing views. Only a decision that has been tested in this way is robust enough to withstand reality.
One of the most successful business leaders in the world today is Carlos Ghosn, head of Nissan and Renault Motor Companies. He is the product of diverse cultures: Born in Brazil of Lebanese parents and educated in France, he has led companies on four continents. In 1999, when Ghosn became CEO of Nissan, the unprofitable automaker was burdened with $22 billion in debt and faced its 27th straight year of market decline. Within four years, Nissan had zero debt and the highest profit margin in the mainstream auto business.
Ghosn achieved this success by leveraging the vast cultural differences within his global corporation. Instead of suppressing dissent, he welcomed divergent voices as an asset. “I have always believed that you can learn the most from people who are not just like you,” Ghosn said. “Seeing issues from someone else’s perspective can be very instructive.”
Ghosn based Nissan’s recovery program on genuinely multicultural teams. Once he had clearly communicated the common purpose—to resurrect this great company—he set out deliberately to mix styles of thinking from different nations in order to get the best of each and to arrive at synergistic solutions.
“Generally speaking, my impression is that Japanese people are naturally process-oriented thinkers. French people are conceptual, ingenious and innovative. Americans are direct, get-to-the-point, bottom-line-driven. The mix of those traits can be a tremendous asset during problem-solving or brainstorming sessions,” he said. “I have no doubt that cultural influences can affect the outcomes of discussions among multicultural teams, contributing much richer solutions than those teams’ members might have developed on their own.”
Nissan’s success is due to these rich synergies. Eight striking new car models were launched in record time by getting engineers together with people from the worlds of fashion, art and architecture in six new design centers around the globe. The groundbreaking 350Z model became a sellout in 2003, winning award after award for its remarkable design.
These are the wonderful fruits of valuing differences: improved processes, surprising new products, synergies everywhere. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts. You have true creative cooperation that produces things no one has achieved before.
As at Nissan, perhaps the greatest benefit of synergy is that it bonds people even though they differ. Any time people listen deeply to one another, and they produce something together that was not there before, that memory is bonding. If both people think alike, one of them is unnecessary.
Stephen R. Covey, Ph.D., is co-founder of FranklinCovey and author of the best-selling “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” and “The 8th Habit.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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