We recently ran an inclusion & diversity workshop that focused on bringing the tech and non-tech functions in the organization to collaborate better together. Early on in the day, our facilitator posed a seemingly simple question to the group:
“How would you describe the group that you do not belong to?”
The purpose was to get the technical staff in the room to describe the non-tech folks (HR, sales, legal), and vice versa. Here is what we captured in the training room:
Needless to say, the differences couldn’t have been starker and the descriptions were negative and full of stereotypes.
We used this exercise as a tool to build awareness and visualize unconscious biases that exist between two (or more) functional groups. While we often address visible diversity categories, like gender or race, we tend to ignore the hidden (cognitive) diversity that are also part of our company’s DNA.
Unconscious biases are hidden beliefs that often have a significant impact on our responses and perceptions to people, places, and situations.
Are ideas from tech staff always better?
Most organizations suffer from a cognitive divide in their functions. As tech and non-tech staff often work in silos, subcultures develop within an organization that can make it harder to find a common ground to communicate. Each function forms its own agenda and creates an “Us vs. Them” atmosphere. Whether it is the in-house lawyer lecturing the marketer about a high-risk campaign, a non-technical project manager trying to get a developer to commit to a tight deadline, or the HR business partner strapped on resources for a complex R&D project, we experience the impact of functional silos every time we work cross-functionally. In some organizations, we are witnessing a certain (unconscious) preference for their tech employees’ ideas and input over others.
One client that we worked with discovered in employee interviews that a culture of censoring ideas had been established. The organization seemed to only be open to the ideas of those “tech superstars” who had been successful in product development, and who were primarily based in the U.S. Ideas from others were viewed with much greater skepticism, regardless of their value. While in principle, people agreed with the corporate value of “We want an environment where all ideas are considered;” in reality, this was not happening.
What effects, do you think, are at play in the described situation?
Let’s stick with this example: The favoring of ideas from tech staff is most likely a combination of various group effects and biases. For one, we tend to favor opinions and input from those that are very similar to us. The organization described above has a lot of technically skilled people in higher management positions. They are more likely to seek input and pick ideas from other tech staff, without being aware of it. This is called INGROUP BIAS or FAVORITISM.
Once the culture of “tech superstars” is established, we then seek to confirm the notion that great ideas come from tech people. When our expectations are based on these assumptions, we look much harder and better at the input from tech people, because “we know” they will be better. On the other hand, we listen to (possibly brilliant) ideas from non-tech staff with much more skepticism. We call this CONFIRMATION BIAS.
Even though people with technical skills like engineering, software development, or data analytics are in high demand in the war for talent in the digital age, we must not forget the contributions and perspectives of their non-technical counterparts. You need sales to actually sell your product and service, and they’ll bring valuable feedback back to the team. Quality control, finance, and people & project managers are necessary to steer the organization in one direction. Without their non-tech peers, even a technology company wouldn’t last very long.
When tech and non-tech people work together, we witness a clash of the learned behaviors of both their respective functions (“This is how we do it”) as well as cognitive styles (People- or task-oriented thinker? Detailed or big picture thinker?). As we put together project teams that span across different functions, we must break up silos to benefit from the diverse perspectives these individuals bring.
When led inclusively, the full potential of cognitively diverse teams can be reached – faster problem-solving and higher performance (HBR, 2017). But in order to reap the benefits, organizations will need to figure out how tech and non-tech people can work together better. Our suggestion is to start by building bridges.
Building bridges between tech and non-tech employees
- Create a buddy system between tech and non-tech staff to establish more contact and exchange. We benefit from input and viewpoints that are outside our daily sphere, to spark creativity and innovation. At the same time, these buddies, through contact, will minimize stereotypes about each other’s groups and learn how to communicate about work in a non-defensive way.
- Ask your staff to audit their networks. By using a “network map”, you can visualize the amount (or lack thereof) of cross-functional contacts. Map the people you interact with the most and the quality of the relationship. Now set goals to expand the map beyond your function.
- Use the approach of divergent thinking (e.g .brainstorming, free writing, mind-mapping), in meetings to come up with more solutions, ideas, and out-of-the-box input from all employees, before judging and evaluating them. Be patient with this time-consuming approach, as it requires participants to “unlearn” the notion of censoring ideas. An experienced design-thinking facilitator can help you set up these new processes.
- Put regular 5-minute conversations about thinking and problem solving styles on your meeting agendas to remind your tech and non-tech staff about the cognitive diversity of the group. Our tool Aperian® lets you assess your communication and work style on five dimensions. Try the GlobeSmart® work-style survey in Aperian for free.
- Develop leaders who encourage systems and processes that foster an inclusive culture. Mentor them to role-model effective communication across functions.
- Encourage and support the formation of employee resource groups that bring cognitively diverse employees together.
- Actively promote tech-specific events to non-tech people and vice versa, so that they can grow more confident and skilled in other areas.