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Jobs + Skills06.27.14

Diversity will help Silicon Valley improve work culture

Hiring? Then forget culture matching. Diversifying talent will make work environments more discordant…and more productive.

The tech industry is full of white and Asian males. It’s become increasingly obvious as more tech companies have followed Google in publishing their workforce diversity data. But the bigger problem may be that the Silicon Valley continues to inbreed, thanks to hiring practices that place a strong emphasis on culture matches, exclusionary networks, and unwritten rules that promote sameness.

The current state of the tech industry is a case study on what happens when culture matches swing the pendulum too far towards sameness. And it highlights a business lesson that can make any mid-market company more successful: conflict is good for business.

Diversity data from Google, Yahoo, and now Facebook reveal that the average gender split for the three companies is 16 percent women and 84 percent men. And the ethnic data shows that workers at all three tech giants are over 90 percent white and Asian.

The voluntary disclosures add transparency to the issue, which is critical to any effort to fix the underlying problems that impede diversity. One of those problems is that rather than a meritocracy, the tech industry is actually more of a “mirrortocracy” that continues to hire people who look and act the same, according to tech entrepreneur Mitch Kapor, co-chair of the Kapor Center for Social Impact.

The idea that anyone with the right skills can get ahead is challenged by tight networks that promote hiring decisions based on who you know over what you know. A strong emphasis on sameness can also deprive underrepresented groups of role models that inspire their participation, as well as the ability to make their own networking connections.

“The problem with gathering a bunch of logically-oriented young males together and encouraging them to construct a Culture gauntlet has nothing to do with their logic, youth, or maleness,” writes Carols Bueno in Quartz, who argues that the Silicon Valley needs to disrupt its own culture. “The problem is that all cliques are self-reinforcing. There is no way to re-calibrate once the insiders have convinced themselves of their greatness.”

The conflict that’s missing from these self-reinforcing cliques is actually important to a company’s success. Conflict can be a sign that employees are working together to solve problems, which produces more effective teamwork that helps a company become more nimble, flexible, and responsive to change, according to Yves Morieux and Peter Tollman of the Boston Consulting Group (BCG).

In an excerpt of their book, “Six Simple Rules: How to Manage Complexity without Getting Complicated,” Morieux and Tollman explain that in order to cooperate, workers need to identify and understand each other’s needs. The process can create tensions and anger, but working through those disagreements can lead to compromises and solutions that benefit the entire organization.

“The greater cause for concern is not emotion or strained relationships but rather indifference,” say Morieux and Tollman, “which shows that a person or group neither makes adjustments nor forces others to do so.”

Creating solutions that help the whole organization can also make employees happier because they feel like their work has a greater impact. It avoids one-sided conflicts – such as when a minority voice goes unheard in a homogenous workplace – that would otherwise breed job dissatisfaction and resentment. Any organization serious about capitalizing on constructive conflict not only has to hire diverse people, but also foster a culture in which they are encouraged to disagree and debate

Companies that do this successfully ultimately meet the needs of a wider customer base. That’s important for the male-dominated tech industry considering that women, for example, control over 70 percent of household online purchases, and outpace men in social media usage.

The tech industry’s diversity problem is not new. But its transparency in revealing workplace data is an important first step towards understanding the size and scope of the problem, which can lead to real solutions– including learning how to disagree.

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