Today’s workplaces are politically correct. We are careful not to say anything that might be perceived to marginalize or offend a particular group, and when it comes to age, ethnicity, race, religion, gender, and sexual orientation, companies want to make sure every employee is respected and equally represented. We do this not because of profit, but because it’s the moral thing to do. This goal is at the heart of what most of us think of when it comes to diversity and inclusion.
But as of this year, the millennial generation (comprised of those born 1980-95) constitutes a majority of the U.S. workforce – and this group of younger professionals has a unique idea of what true diversity and inclusion should look like.
According to a 2015 study by The Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative (BJKLI) and The Deloitte University Leadership Center for Inclusion (which surveyed 3,726 global professionals of all levels, ages, genders, races, ethnicities, and sexual orientations), while millennials value the ideals of diversity and inclusion just like professionals in other generations, they define the constructs differently.
Most baby boomers and even Generation X-ers view diversity and inclusion in terms of representation and assimilation. But for millennials, walking into an office lobby and seeing all types of people should be a given. True workplace diversity and inclusion means that people can come to work and be their genuine selves without fear of negative consequences. This is known as cognitive diversity.
The study’s millennials shared that cognitive diversity is the secret sauce for better engagement and empowerment along today’s fickle employees; inclusion is important not as an abstract ideal that checks a box and makes everyone feel good, but as a critical tool that enables business competitiveness and growth.
What are the implications of such diverging views? BJKLI and Deloitte found that many millennial professionals are dissatisfied by what they perceive as a one-dimensional view of diversity and inclusion. They believe that modern companies aren’t doing enough to foster individual thoughts, ideas, and philosophies, or to create teams that connect various perspectives and allow everyone to have a say. A PC workplace in which every holiday is dutifully celebrated means little if someone can’t openly discuss her opinion of the company’s new business plan.
When millennials feel constrained in this way, shorter tenures are the result. They change jobs every two years in part because workplaces are intolerant of their points of view. Companies that don’t take diversity and inclusion to the next level will lose their millennials, and won’t have much better luck with the younger and more vocal Generation Z.
As a leader, what can you do to encourage your organization to support greater cognitive diversity and inclusion? Obviously, you can’t give millennials carte blanche to do and say what they want in every situation, and young professionals still need to be sensitive and diplomatic in expressing controversial opinions. However, perhaps there’s a happy medium.
The millennials in the BJKLI and Deloitte study offered advice for the best path forward: drive stronger business results by focusing diversity and inclusion programs on the acceptance of individualism, collaboration, teamwork, and innovation. Will this work? You don’t have to take the millennials’ word for it. According to a 2012 IBM study, 75 percent of CEOs and executive-level leaders believe that leveraging cognitive diversity is essential to financial success.
Outside the D&I and HR spheres, facilitating millennial contributions through less rigid hierarchies, apprenticeship and rotational programs, and senior leader relationships is a good place to start. When they are ready for official management or even before, place talented millennials at the head of cross-functional project teams so they can practice synthesizing the diverse input they crave. Provide access to social collaboration tools that will have them interacting and innovating with colleagues across the globe.
Finally, don’t underestimate the importance of changing the conversation. Just like increased self-awareness leads to strong leadership, having and sharing knowledge about the evolution of diversity and inclusion will strengthen your culture from the inside out.