Diversity of thought

Wise and aware governing boards -- from the corporate suite to the fellowship hall -- are always looking to diversify their membership. However, an insightful piece in the Wall Street Journal titled "Why Diversity Can Backfire on Company Boards" shows that diversifying the board in ways that benefit the institution is not always easy.

The authors explain:

Blame it on human nature: As much as diversity is something we prize, the truth is that people often feel baffled, threatened, or even annoyed by persons with views and backgrounds very different from their own.  The result is that when [board members] are appointed because their views or backgrounds are different, they often are isolated and ignored.   

When inviting those of different racial, ethnic, national, religious, and professional backgrounds to a board, it's possible for the majority to sabotage the effectiveness of the newcomers without even meaning to. Board leadership can unwittingly set them up as outliers, tokens, and marginal or "special-interest" contributors. The majority perspective within a board -- rooted in the similar backgrounds and experiences of most members -- is a strong cultural force that one or two new members cannot, on their own, affect without the conscious effort of the majority. If not prepared for the real cultural implications of difference on the board, efforts to diversity can be more detrimental than beneficial.

Journal's article offers some concrete suggestions for managing the diversification of board membership:

  • Choose new members carefully. Personality, experience, and social skills are important.
  • Assist newcomers. Pay attention to new members and help them acclimate to the board's unspoken habits.
  • Encourage initial dissenters. Invite newcomers, who may sit silently, to contribute to the discussion, even if it means the a divergent view comes to light.
  • Don't give in to get along. Board members can develop a fear of conflict as the board becomes more diverse. Be mindful of how underlying tensions can discourage a forthright exchange of ideas. Neither new nor old answers are always right.

Read the full article here.


Image credit: Paul Wearing / Wall Street Journal