The Case for Diversity: Social Justice or the Bottom Line?

By Dr. Sandra Upton

Whenever I’m preparing for a keynote or to facilitate a cultural intelligence (CQ) training I always do a prep call with someone in the organization, just to make sure I fully understand their needs and expectations. Recently I was on one of those calls with a major healthcare system and one of the managers in Diversity and Inclusion boldly said to me, “Whatever you do, stay away from the social justice conversation. That won’t work here.” She went on to say that if you don’t help people see the bottom line impact, they won’t be motivated to change. Conversely, I’ve had polar opposite conversations where the organization or institution says, “We’re motivated to embrace diversity because we care about people and it’s simply the right thing to do!” So which perspective is right? And which one offers the greatest potential for behavioral change and sustainable results. The answer: Both and both.

As long as we’ve been in this work, our view of the “case for diversity” has been that the “bottom line” is really two things:

  1. Tangible progress or results can’t be accomplished or sustained if inequitable systems aren’t dismantled and individual behaviors don’t change, and
  2. To change behaviors and improve cross cultural performance you have to equip people with the skills, or cultural intelligence (CQ), that enable them to change their behaviors and actions.

So, how can these two seemingly different perspectives and approaches both positively impact behavioral and systemic change? Here are a few tips on taking a balanced perspective and approach to creating diverse and culturally intelligent organizations.

Challenge the Myths. In recent years, the term “restorative practices” has re-merged across the globe as a highly popular strategy, especially in K-12/secondary education and the nonprofit worlds, for building and repairing cross-cultural relationships. The idea is that if we desire to work effectively with others, particularly those whom we have differences and conflicts, we need to go through a process and set of practices that allow us to build community and restore relationships that have been damaged because of the wrongdoings by other individuals and cultural groups. In the business world this social justice type approach can sometimes be viewed as too feel-good, too time-consuming, and reserved only for the non-business world. This is a myth.

This approach is very relevant to the business world. In fact, when understood and approached correctly, this process can challenge the diversity efforts of businesses on a variety of levels. It considers the role that power, privilege, and unconscious bias play in organizations. It also addresses issues of access, equity, and inclusion. Furthermore, research demonstrates that these kinds of courageous conversations and practices, when consistently applied by managers and when employees feel psychologically safe, can boost employee performance and results. Virgin Group founder Richard Branson argues that social justice is good for business. He says that inequality is the biggest inhibitor that we face to creating a sustainable and equitable future for everyone. He fights this through his conglomerate of businesses which include an airline, a cellphone company, and a hotel chain, just to name a few.

Likewise, emphasizing the bottom line (financial benefit to the organization) as a strategy has it benefits. And it doesn’t always mean that the organization only cares about profits and not people. That’s another myth. Sometimes old-fashioned, hard data is all it takes to prove a point. And there’s plenty of it. Numerous research studies have shown how diversity and inclusion positively impact an organization’s ROI. And our own ongoing research confirms that cultural intelligence is the real difference maker on the bottom line. We need to be careful to not dismiss or assume that either approach or strategy is limited to certain types of organizations or in its impact on diversity efforts. And whether you take the social justice approach, the bottom line approach, or a combination of both, be sure to operationalize it in culturally intelligent ways. Filter it through the CQ Framework and four capabilities by asking yourself a few questions:

CQ Drive (level of motivation, persistence, confidence). What is your organization’s motivation for diversity? Is there a concern for both profit and people?

CQ Knowledge (understanding of cultural similarities and differences). How well do you understand the diversity of your employees? Customers? Students? What do you understand about the differences in their cultural values? Where are the inequities in your organization?

CQ Strategy (awareness and ability to plan for multicultural interactions). Has your organization created an inclusive culture? Do people feel psychologically safe to be themselves and share their ideas and perspectives? Do your policies and practices serve as a benefit or barrier to your diversity efforts?

CQ Action (ability to adapt). Are your managers, employees, or teachers able to adapt their behaviors when interacting across cultures?

Regardless of the approach your organization uses to create and encourage diversity, it is important to remember that diversity by itself does not lead to better solutions. It is when it is coupled with CQ that we see significantly enhanced cross-cultural understanding, restored relationships, and bottom line impact.

CQ is an ongoing education

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