Conventional wisdom holds that truly agile, adaptive organisations encourage diversity amongst their talent pools. While efforts to reflect a wide range of diversity demographics in an organisation’s profile are essential (e.g., gender, age, ethnicity, religious conviction, sexual orientation, culture), it is also important to consider another facet of diversity for genuine organisational evolution and innovation. Something more subtle than the traditional categories: differences.

Research by organisational behaviour experts Professors Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones demonstrates that individual differences between people in terms of their core assumptions, perspectives and habits of mind, are needed to complement the diversity of the individuals in the team. Executives who value teams like this, Goffee and Jones found, actively want their staff to challenge them and push them in new directions. These differences – fundamental differences in mind-set and attitudes between one person and another – drive innovation and adaptation to new challenges.

Goffee and Jones illustrate their argument with a number of revealing examples. Let’s take an organisation that fully ticks all the diversity boxes – a large packaged-goods company that the professors studied. The firm’s top 70 executives were drawn from all over the globe. However, such diversity turned out to be far more superficial than might be supposed: these people were all, as Goffee and Jones described them, “urbane, sophisticated, multilingual, diplomatic, and mildly humorous. In other words, they were very similar to each other in terms of approach and outlook, and that has caused problems for the organisation.”

The organisation’s professional leadership processes had polished out of existence the unique personal differences that always exist between people, whether they share the same diversity demographics or not; and it’s precisely these individual differences that could, if nurtured and encouraged, form the basis of true leadership ability.

Next time, I’ll explore how organisations that value individual difference become organisations that change by refusing to make everyone the same.

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