Diversity in the workplace – making it meaningful

By Elisabeth Goodman, 16th November 2020

I have just come off a panel discussion at Bio Integrates 2020 (Life Science Integrates), on “Diversity Driving Decisions”, hosted by One Nucleus‘ CEO Tony Jones and accompanied by Joanna Gould, CEO and co-founder of VisusNano.

The conference organisers cited an article by Anna Powers, which  found that diverse companies produce 19% more revenue. They suggested that this is because diversity means diversity of minds, ideas, and approaches, which leads to more innovation.

The scope of diversity in the workplace is very broad

Our panel discussion was a great opportunity to explore diversity in the workplace, and how we could make it more meaningful in the Life Science sector in which we work.

We explored such topics as:

  • How diverse Life Science SMEs appear to be in terms of generational and international representation
  • How leaders and managers can encourage and support diverse people to have the confidence to express their views through creating a climate of psychological safety and trust
  • How leaders can learn to be receptive to diverse points of view and not feel threatened by them, by cultivating their emotional intelligence, and more flexible leadership styles

We also touched on Neurodiversity, a term coined by the Australian sociologist Judy Singer in 1998 to describe different approaches to socialising, learning, attention and mood. It’s also a term that is used to refer to autism, dyslexia, ADHD and other neurological differences. Interestingly, Nancy Doyle, who is the CEO of Genius Within, an organisation that provides support for Neurodiversity in the workplace, says:

“It is estimated that just 59% of people can be considered “neurotypical”. With prevalence data like that, we have to assume that neurodiversity is a natural variation within the human species.”

Given the above, my approach when working with diversity in the workplace is to take our diversity as a given, and ensure that we all make a point of understanding it and working with it. I believe that we are all enriched by our experience of diversity, as individuals, teams and whole organisations.

This led to a further discussion on the panel about:

  • How we can learn more about the diversity of our teams, our own and others’ strengths, and then use that understanding to work together more effectively

Group-think as an indication of lack of diversity

As Tony Jones rightly said, working in the Life Sciences is an evidence-based discipline, and he asked me how organisations can measure their level of diversity. There are certainly tools and organisations dedicated to doing this: a quick search on the internet will pull up a few.

I suggested that managers and leaders could get some idea of this through how prevalent “group-think” was in an organisation. This is where teams reach decisions too quickly and unanimously, with no wider debate.

If “group-think” is the norm, it suggests that individuals either don’t dare to express different points of view, or don’t have any of these to express. In the former situation, leaders and managers need to find a way to create that climate of safety; in the latter they may be needing to recruit for greater diversity.

Reducing unconscious bias in recruitment

One of the risks when recruiting new members of your team, is that you might be drawn to people who are more like yourself, with obvious negative implications for diversity.

Coincidentally, the November-December 2020 issue of Harvard Business Review has several articles that were relevant to our panel discussion. One of these is Everett Spain’s article on reinventing the leader selection process in the US army. It makes fascinating reading, and includes a very comprehensive check-list on how any sector or organisation could reduce unconscious bias in the interview process. This list includes such things as:

  • making sure your selection panel is itself diverse
  • training panel members to recognise and avoid sources of bias such as primacy (focusing on first impressions), contrast (comparing candidates to each other vs. agreed standards), halo / horn (single positive or negative traits that might overshadow others) and so on..
  • not allowing panelists to interview people they know
  • using double-blind interviews so as not to be biased by physical appearance
  • designing behaviour-based (competence) interview questions
  • and more..

Concluding thoughts: developing a “learning and effectiveness paradigm” in relation to diversity

Had there been the opportunity, I would have loved to cite some of the material in another of the November-December 2020 articles in Harvard Business Review. Robin Ely and David Thomas first wrote about their “learning and effectiveness paradigm” in 1996.

They argue that increasing an organisation’s diversity does not in itself increase its effectiveness. Whilst we know intuitively that diversity can lead to greater idea generation, creativity, innovation, improved problem solving and ultimate productivity, these things will not happen just by having a diverse workforce.

As Ely and Thomas say, it’s being able to harness that diversity that will make the difference, and that is where their paradigm comes in.

We touched on some of the ways to do this in our panel discussion: building trust and embracing a wide range of diversity are two of these. Actively working against discrimination is another. Reviewing recruitment processes will contribute to this, but it also takes active examination of an organisation’s ways of working to route out any discriminatory practices that might have crept in.

The fourth and last component of Ely and Thomas’ paradigm is to make differences a resource for learning i.e. to explore what each and every one of us can learn from the differences between us: a wonderful echo to my earlier point about how our diversity can enrich us!



Doyle, N. (2019, Feb 1). Making the invisible visible – supporting neurodiversity in the workplace. Personnel Today. Retrieved from https://www.personneltoday.com/hr/making-the-invisible-visible/

Ely, R.J. & Thomas, D.A. (2020). Getting serious about diversity. Enough already with the business case. Harvard Business Review, November – December, 115 – 122

Powers, A. (2018, June 27). A study finds that diverse companies produce 19% more revenue. Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/annapowers/2018/06/27/a-study-finds-that-diverse-companies-produce-19-more-revenue/?sh=10c88967506f

Spain, E. (2020). Reinventing the leader selection process. The US Army’s new approach to managing talent. Harvard Business Review, November-December, 78 – 85.

About the author

Elisabeth Goodman is the Owner and Principal Consultant at RiverRhee Consulting, a consultancy that specialises in “creating exceptional managers and teams”, through coaching, courses and workshops, and with a focus on the Life Sciences. RiverRhee is a member-to-member training provider for One Nucleus.

Elisabeth founded RiverRhee Consulting in 2009, and prior to that had 25+ years’ experience in the Pharmaceutical Industry in line management and internal training and consultancy roles supporting teams on a global basis.

She is developing her coaching practice, with a focus on helping individuals to achieve authenticity and autonomy in the workplace by enhancing their management, interpersonal and communication skills, and their ability to deal with uncertainty and change.

Elisabeth is accredited in Change Management, in Lean Sigma, in Belbin Team Roles, MBTI (Myers Briggs Type Indicator) and is an NLP (NeuroLinguistic Programming) Practitioner. She is a member of the APM (Association for Project Management) in which she was a founding member of the Enabling Change SIG.

Elisabeth is also a member of the ICF (International Coaching Federation) and is working towards her PG Certification in Business and Personal Coaching with Barefoot Coaching and the University of Chester.

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