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OP-ED

Tolerance is for cowards

Jennifer Riel
By Jennifer Riel

Adjunct professor, Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto

Last year, AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson was speaking to employees about Black Lives Matter when he said something unexpected: “Tolerance,” he told the audience, “is for cowards.” This was shocking, given that tolerance is often a foundational principle of diversity and inclusion policies—the kinds of policies that are pervasive in the corporate world, including AT&T.

I also happen to think he was right. Simply preaching tolerance and creating diverse work teams isn’t enough to actually lead to better choices. Teams need supporting structures, organizational norms, and real tools to have a shot at creating better outcomes. This means a shift in mindset and process when it comes to making decisions together.

Diversity is virtually a holy writ in business at this point, and for good reason. Women and minorities have traditionally faced systemic barriers to being hired, promoted and paid fairly. So policies designed to create equity have a moral foundation: we want to be fair (or at least more fair) to everyone. Over the past decade, companies have increasingly embraced diversity not just as a moral act but as a source of competitive advantage. “A diverse mix of voices leads to better discussions, decisions, and outcomes for everyone,” says Google CEO Sundar Pichai in a video on Google’s diversity website; “Diversity is at the very core of our ability to serve our clients well and to maximize return for our shareholders,” echoes Goldman Sachs’ Lloyd Blankfein in a quote on his company’s website. In other words, while creating a diverse workforce may be right on moral grounds alone, many firms are betting on diversity initiatives to deliver happier customers and increased profits, too.

Companies now routinely structure work teams to include people from different educational backgrounds and job functions, across generations, races, genders and perspectives. These cross-functional teams are intended to leverage diverse and opposing views to create new value.

It seems right. Diverse perspectives should help firms find better answers. And it can work: studies by Berkeley’s Charlan Nemeth show that just being exposed to minority views stimulated people to think harder and more broadly, and made it more likely they would find new solutions or come to new answers.

But in practice, companies have found it challenging to realize the potential of their diverse teams. Evidence suggests that in diverse groups, women’s ideas are more likely to be discounted and that in mixed-sex teams, credit is far more often given to male than female participants. Differences of race, age and, yes, political perspectives, can have a similar effect.

That’s why I think it’s important to go a step beyond creating diverse teams and tolerating diversity to focus on building the mindsets and processes that we need to allow all voices to be heard.

First, mindset: We need to understand why leveraging diversity is harder than it seems. It turns out that the problem is connected to the way human beings make sense of the world. Our world so complex we cannot take it all in, make sense of it in real time and retain the ability to function. So we necessarily filter out a lot of complexity just to get through the day. In essence, our minds build simplified models of everything we see, touch and experience, without us ever being aware we have done so. And our minds build these models with systematic biases.

Everyone around us is in the same boat, but because human beings are wonderfully different, each of our models are different too. All of our models are a little bit wrong, but they are wrong in different ways. I see the world one way and you see it another. But because each of us believes we see and understand unvarnished reality, we each believe our view is the right answer. The other perspective doesn’t feel like an alternative and valid explanation. It just feels wrong. Which is why diversity of thought tends to produce interpersonal clash, in which we try to convince others that they are wrong.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can help team members to reflect on their mindsets and shift how they think about opposing perspectives. Ultimately, that is what AT&T’s Stephenson was saying. After dismissing tolerance, he went on to explain why mere tolerance simply isn’t enough. “Being tolerant requires nothing from you but to be quiet and to not make waves, holding tightly to your views and judgments without being challenged,” he said. “Do not tolerate each other. Work hard, move into uncomfortable territory and understand each other.” Put another way, the better option is to choose to engage with different ideas differently. This means that when a colleague puts forward a view totally at odds with what you believe, rather than arguing why that person is wrong, you might lean forward and reply “say more.” You might seek to understand what that person thinks, and why they think it, not to destroy their argumentation but to engage in a richer discussion of the issue at hand.

Beyond mindset, it is a matter of finding processes that can help us to leverage the tension of opposing ideas to jointly create a new and better answer. We need tools that help people to lay out their own thinking clearly and examine it critically, to genuinely explore the thinking of other people, and to build new answers that integrate between these different perspectives. One such tool is the pro-pro chart. Rather than evaluating opposing ideas using pros-and-cons to determine who is right, we articulate all of the positive features and outcomes of the opposing models, with the aim of understanding what each can offer us as we work to use these perspectives to create a better solution. Without tools like these that enable everyone to integrate across perspectives, diverse teams will tend to create frustration, roadblocks, and hard feelings. Faux diversity will slow us down on the path to mediocre decisions, rather than leading us to superior ones.

Jennifer Riel is an adjunct professor at the Rotman School Management, University of Toronto and co-author, with Roger Martin, of Creating Great Choices: A leader’s Guide to Integrative Thinking.