How to achieve progress and benefits with D&I? Keep cool and manage complexity

It could be so simple and joyful: celebrating diversity, colourful balloons and smiling people. All good. However, anyone who tackles diversity in a simplistic way and presents it only as a business case is not only cheating on his or her own label – they will also quickly reach the limits of credibility and expectations of measurable success. This is shown both by longer-term maturity and by the effects of recent events. Two key issues have become apparent: a focus on individual issues and a quite superficial desire for change.

What is labelled diversity must contain diversity

Diversity emerged as a platform concept that was intended to work jointly on various diversity issues – and in synergetic way. The question which dimensions should be included already led to some harsh debates.

  • Conservative stakeholders wanted to exclude the topic of ‘sexual orientation’ and accused the gay community of ‘abusing’ diversity for their agenda.
  • The already established women’s organisations saw their privileged political position threatened by the new platform approach.
  • The culturalists recommended themselves as an umbrella concept covering all topics; after all, all differences (e.g. between generations, genders or mentalities) could be addressed using the methodologies of intercultural management.

The framework of the naturally given or unchangable six ‘core dimensions’ was difficult to establish as a foundation – and it turned out to be of limited practical use. From a business perspective, work-related (acquireable!) differences such as multilingualism, motivation, mobility, teamwork or expertise are of more immediate relevance compared to personal demographics. Many organisations hence take a selective approach to the core dimensions and often prioritise the so-called 3 Gs – gender, generations, geography (as a collective concept for origin, race, ethnicity, internationality). It is not surprising that the minorities scorned in this process react cynically and question the credibility of a limited diversity approach.

An unchanging hierarchy of discrimination

In many strategies, it has proven to be a valuable tool to use the most marginal topic as a litmus test for maturity, quality or the holistic nature of a concept. In the context of diversity, analyses have shown for many years that the frequency of considering a diversity topic correlates with the size of the marginalised group (relative to the dominant group). Hence, gender (approximately equal group size of men and women) is never questioned, age and culture are well accepted (combined size of minority groups is larger than 20%), while religion and especially sexual orientation – over 90% heterosexuals vs. less than 10% LGBTQI – are considered as the last facet – if at all. Practicioners and policy makers have started to take this into account.

The concept of diversity is neither divisible nor delegable

It is thus good pratice nowadays to propagate a ‘comprehensive approach’ to diversity. In fact, the latest analysis by European Diversity shows that half of the 50 largest corporations in Europe now explicitly mention five or more diversity dimensions in their annual reports (two years ago it was a quarter, six years ago 18%). A look at the implementation strategies, however, shows that a wide range is concealed behind the proclaimed holistic approach: Extensive programmes for the 3 Gs and highly focused (or limited) measures for religion, disability and LGBTQI. Many activities are strongly oriented towards the specific (stereotypical?) characteristics of the respective groups and rely on their participation. In addition, due to the widespread niche character, many programs cannot have a noticeable impact on the mainstream culture of the company let alone on the leadership culture. This brings two undesirable side effects:

  • Perception: The division of diversity into separate subject areas (gender, religion, etc.) reinforces latent stereotypes and increases the perceived complexity on the side of the mainstream target groups (‘what more should we pay attention to?’, ‘where are the limits of diversity?’).
  • Reversed accountability: The delegation of responsibility – e.g. to employee networks – does not include the necessary power to influence the organisation (and the groups usually have to make suggestions and hope for approval and participation)

Blind spots: Diversity must ask unpleasant questions

These and other – more or less subtle – biases remain prevalent even after 20 years of diversity practice. One reason is that the context for many measures is different from that of the early years. Over two decades, a large number of implementation tools have been developed, creating a mainstream approach and undisputed narratives. These show certain similarities and are considered, qua existence, as standard. On the other hand, the public, especially political, pressure of expectation led to a focus on publicity measures – especially on the annual theme days (International Women’s Day, Gay Pride, Day Against Racism, Diversity Day, etc.).

The widespread diversity programmes and publicity campaigns fulfil important functions. They establish a background noise and create attention for the topic. However, they rarely generate change energy. In the worst case, they lead to the perception of routine or even to symptoms of fatigue. But in order to achieve progress – also with regard to proclaimed objectives – and measurable added value, a significant amount of energy is needed; otherwise most things will remain as they were before. Change only occurs when systems are set in motion by suitable – and certainly critical or uncomfortable – questions and other similar impulses. Numerous proven methodologies as well as innovative approaches exist for this purpose. The following applies to all of them: Those who mainly implement measures that many approve will rarely achieve real effects. Those who focus mainly on special interests will set impulses, but will not prevent the system from moving back into its initial position.

Those who are serious about diversity should also commit to measuring success

More and more often, companies are finding, based on their internal analyses, that although they are making progress, the pace is lagging behind expectations. Support often falls short of the extensive initial expectations and related hopes. After all, many managers are missing specific added value as a result of positively managed diversity. In many cases, a thorough analysis of the underlying factors shows:

  • Expectations of quantitative changes are often over-ambitious with regard to the speed of growth and under-ambitious with regard to the target level (e.g. measured by the achievable population).
  • Performance measurement uses too few indicators to reflect the holistic nature of the approach; above all, value-based indicators of corporate culture and behavior-based indicators for inclusion are rare.
  • Added value achieved through diversity management is rarely recorded or communicated; this may reflect the low significance of the measures, since tracking your ROI is quite common in professional business contexts.

A current crux of diversity management can be seen in these aspects: on the one hand, it is well positioned and anchored in many places. On the other hand, this leads, at times, to (too much) routine or invisibility – especially when D&I is seen the task of ‘everyone in everything they do’. For successful traction, diversity (once more) needs a clearer mandate for change and, as a result, consistent accountabilities with corresponding metrics. These need to cover the various topics and levels of diversity management and be rigorously aligned with the specifics of an organisation (or entity). This way, relevance and credibility can be combined to create momentum for change and both value-add and progress are within reach.


Stuber, Michael (2014): Diversity & Inclusion – The Potential Principle. Aachen: Shaker Publishing House

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First published in BBE Newsletter No. 10/2017, 18 May 2017

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