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Three Actions That Will Help Foster Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in Any Organization

This article originally appeared on Forbes.com.

There is a Japanese proverb that says, “A single arrow is easily broken, but not ten in a bundle.”

A harmonious team is a true strength. Research into team dynamics and performance has found that diverse and inclusive teams make better decisions and are more innovative.

Julie Coffman, Bain & Company’s first Chief Diversity Officer, recently outlined in her article “Making Progress on DEI: Why Inclusion and Metrics Matter Most” how much employees, investors, and consumers all value diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). Regulators are also focused on this issue. All publicly held corporations headquartered in California with five or more directors now must, by law, have a minimum of two directors who are from underrepresented communities, for example.

Unlocking the full value of a diverse team or workplace requires creating and fostering an inclusive culture. That’s a culture in which everyone feels they belong, is treated with dignity, and is encouraged to fully participate as themselves, as Julie explains in a second piece she recently coauthored, “The Fabric of Belonging: How to Weave an Inclusive Culture.”

This is a global movement. In Japan, there is increasing momentum to reform corporate governance, with a specific focus on improving gender diversity on boards. Bain has ambitious objectives to advance diversity of all types—gender, nationality, educational background, and even leadership style—in Japan. This is critical to growth and to providing the best value to clients.

What’s effective in Japan will vary in some ways from what works in a European market or the US. The principles of inclusion and valuing diversity are 100% relevant in all three locations, but the context is a bit different depending on where you operate.

In Switzerland, a small country in the middle of Europe with a highly international flavor, for example, there is a focus on promoting national and gender diversity. The ability to harness the full potential of different cultural backgrounds and languages is key in this environment, where it is common to encounter leadership teams comprising an array of different nationalities.

Japan’s business culture has historically been shaped by ethnic homogeneity and strict hierarchy, raising different challenges to diversity. Someone who is third-generation Japanese and born of South Asian descent may still feel expected to prove their understanding of the local business and cultural context to gain trust, whereas a Japanese citizen partially raised and educated in the US may feel imposter syndrome when struggling with the difficulty and “foreignness” of Japanese formal business etiquette.

Such diverse experiences bring tremendous value, but it’s important to make a concerted effort to ensure everyone feels included enough to bring their whole self to work.

Although there are differences in these different markets, there are important commonalities as well. Julie describes three specific actions that can help any company hoping to progress on these issues wherever it operates:

Set a holistic DEI ambition

Successful DEI strategies focus both inside and outside an organization’s four walls. They include an equitable talent journey, an inclusive culture, and fair wages and benefits, as well as strong external engagement in the marketplace and in the community. For all aspects of your ambition, ensure that you have explicit goals and tangible metrics to measure progress. Bain recently released its first DEI report, in which the firm  shared goals for its people, its business, and its community.

Listen to all of your stakeholders, focusing on amplifying marginalized voices

Studies have shown the enormous value of employee listening (for example, employee engagement surveys). Bain looks at sentiment data through various demographic and intersectional cuts and shares results with leaders across the firm. Your external stakeholders also require the same effort to listen. It’s important that the marginalized groups you are working to better support are a central part of any design teams seeking to make change, whether you’re redesigning an employee onboarding process or creating a new marketing strategy.

Remember that DEI is a journey and not a destination

DEI is different from other transformations—it is deeply personal, it’s inherently subjective, and it’s difficult to know the end state. Making progress on DEI often requires going slow to go fast; taking the time to deeply understand the challenges, fully define the problems, and recognize the highest impact opportunities is critical. Meaningful change will take continued focus, effort, and time.

Diversity, equity, and inclusion matter. They make organizations stronger and more agile, and in today’s rapidly changing business environment, they are more important than ever before. Leaders seeking meaningful progress should thoughtfully apply universal principles to their specific cultural and strategic circumstances. Context matters.

Whether in Japan, Switzerland, the US, or anywhere else around the globe, a bundle of arrows is always stronger than a single arrow.


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