The Case for Religious Diversity

by: Issues: May/June 2018. Tags: IBJ Insights and Leadership. Categories: Governance.
A group of diverse people putting their hands together in a circle

Like a party host who wants to keep dinner conversations from becoming heated, corporate leaders tend to discourage religious discussions from taking place around the boardroom table. And that’s unfortunate because the diverse religious and spiritual beliefs that help people cope with everyday challenges are something organizational leaders should be discussing.

The benefits of embracing people’s deeper beliefs have never been easy for everyone to see. The problem stems from what we focus on. When taking a superficial look at someone’s faith tradition, it’s easy to be troubled by ideas that we’re not accustomed to. This is especially true today with the divisive rhetoric of many political leaders—which clearly doesn’t support progress on the diversity front.

But lack of progress on the acceptance of religious diversity isn’t just a problem in Donald Trump’s America, Aung San Suu Kyi’s Myanmar, or Najib Razak’s Malaysia. From my perspective, religious and multicultural tolerance is becoming harder to find in Canada. Think about the public consensus challenges over the Sikh background of NDP leader Jagmeet Singh, the Quebec debate over legislation to ban religious face coverings, or the questions raised about whether graduates of Trinity Western University can be trusted to practice law.

This unfortunate reality, of course, can be changed through better awareness and dialogue. And as I discovered in my doctoral research, religious and spiritual discussions can be cultivated as a source of opportunity when openly acknowledged in the workplace.

Religious and spiritual people have much more in common than we realize. The fields of psychology and cognitive science are premised on the assumption that humans have common thought processes. And after conducting in-depth interviews with a diverse group of people working everyday jobs, I found that religious thinking is central to how we cope with challenges in our daily work.

When I speak of individual religiousness and spirituality, I am not just talking about people who attend church or endorse a religion. In broad terms, one established definition of religiousness is the search for significance in ways related to the sacred—which could mean faith in God or a transcendent form of spirituality focused on community, connectedness, or meaning. Whether institutional or not, faith traditions lead employees to think transcendent thoughts when faced with problems. In other words, religious diversity in the workplace exists whether management actively recognizes it or not.

While Canadian figures are lacking, a 2008 Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) study found that 90 per cent of workplaces in the United States have at least some level of religious diversity. And yet, most workplace diversity programs hesitate to account for people’s religiousness. As things stand, it is difficult to find any cultural diversity program with a clearly articulated approach to promoting the appreciation of religious differences, beyond superficial overviews of religious history, tradition, or ritual.

“Embracing religious and spiritual diversity is key to unlocking the full potential of thought diversity.”

Simply put, instead of seeing religious diversity as a strength, it is often treated as a workplace disturbance that must be accommodated. Because the general management attitude toward religious diversity has not been proactive, one could argue it has been ineffective against increased discrimination. According to the SHRM report, religious bias complaints in the workplace increased 69 per cent between 1998 and 2008—a larger jump than bias claims over racial, national origin, or sexual discrimination. Either way, religious diversity represents an opportunity to be harnessed. After all, the business case for embracing religious diversity is similar to the case for other forms of diversity.

According to a 2013 Deloitte paper on the need to rethink diversity, advances in neurological research have started to untangle how each of us thinks and solves problems. “Up to now, diversity initiatives have focused primarily on fairness for legally protected populations. But organizations now have an opportunity to harness a more powerful and nuanced kind of diversity: diversity of thought.” Calling it the next frontier, the paper’s authors argued that thought diversity can help organizations better guard against groupthink while increasing the scale of new insights and empowering management to better identify the right employees to tackle pressing problems. “Each human being has a unique blend of identities, cultures, and experiences that inform how he or she thinks, interprets, negotiates, and accomplishes a task,” they noted, adding that diversity of thought “goes beyond the affirmation of equality—simply recognizing differences and responding to them. Instead, the focus is on realizing the full potential of people, and in turn the organization, by acknowledging and appreciating the potential promise of each person’s unique perspective and different way of thinking.”

As this new frontier of diversity has been explored, however, much of the focus has been on the cognitive side of the thought diversity equation, meaning the “different ways of thinking” that exist. But if organizations hope to fully take advantage of thought diversity, paying attention to “each person’s unique perspective” is just as important as embracing diversity in human wiring. As a result, embracing religious and spiritual diversity is key to unlocking the full potential of thought diversity because critical situations at work frequently force us to solve our problems in special ways based on our personal experiences and cultural background.

My doctoral research revealed four types of employment-related existential uncertainties that tend to lead people to think higher thoughts: (1) inhospitality or threats to personal identity; (2) discord or strife in interpersonal relationships; (3) incongruence or poor fit with job conditions; and (4) irresolution or challenges in managerial decision-making. I found that employees tend to seek answers that are transcendent or sacred in nature when self-image is attacked, workplace relationships collapse, vocational paths turn foggy, or management dilemmas overwhelm.

In other words, religiousness and spirituality are a common psychological resource that employees use to face existential uncertainties. But because our deeply held beliefs differ, a diverse range of thinking is being tapped to cope with those challenges. And that’s why fully embracing thought diversity requires being more introspective about the faith-related thoughts of employees.

Simply put, sharing how we cope with common problems helps open the new frontier of workplace diversity, where there is the perennial need for greater insight, creativity, and mindfulness. But appreciating religious diversity isn’t just about battling groupthink and increasing innovation. It generates greater workplace understanding and cohesion. It also helps drive good leadership development.

The three pillars of good leadership are competencies, commitment, and character. Any weakness in any of these pillars undermines the foundation of good judgment, raising the risk of performance issues. And that’s a major issue because character, which fundamentally shapes how leaders engage with the world around them, has long been the most overlooked area of leadership development.

Leadership character is challenging to develop because it isn’t easy to understand the roots of it. However, research into the failures that led to the global financial crisis, conducted by the Ivey Business School’s Ian O. Ihnatowycz Institute for Leadership, has led to a framework for measuring leader character. As outlined in Developing Leadership Character, Ivey’s ground-breaking research in this area identified 11 character dimensions, or virtues, that function in tandem to support good leadership.

While good leadership requires all character dimensions, it is unfortunately common for organizations to emphasize virtues like accountability, courage, drive, and integrity, while playing down or ignoring the importance of virtues such as humility, humanity, and justice. This is a recipe for poor leader development because each virtue on its own can become a vice unless it is moderated by other virtues. Without temperance, for example, drive can result in reckless behaviour. Without compassion or empathy (elements of humanity), candour (an element of integrity) may cause leader feedback to come across as mean-spirited and therefore be rejected.

Because leadership development needs to focus on all leader character dimensions, it pays to openly support the type of religious diversity that encourages the development of goodness in character. Embracing religious and spiritual beliefs not only serves as a focus of leader reflection and enrichment, it supports the virtues that organizations tend to underemphasize.

Promoting diversity of thought in leadership development clearly takes diversity initiatives to the next level. Indeed, as the New York-based Center for Talent Innovation (CTI) has found, extra dividends from diversity initiatives are gained when executives “both embody and embrace the power of differences.”

In a 2013 study, CTI researchers examined the impact of what it calls two-dimensional diversity by scrutinizing organizations for two kinds of diversity: inherent traits based on the workforce’s demographic characteristics, and acquired traits based on the leaders’ diversity-promoting behaviours, such as appreciating difference and fostering candour. It found that companies who exhibit at least three inherent and three acquired diversity traits tend to out-innovate and out-perform their peers. As reported in Harvard Business Review, “Employees at these companies are 45% likelier to report that their firm’s market share grew over the previous year and 70% likelier to report that the firm captured a new market.”

The workplace is one of the few places where we regularly come together with people of different backgrounds, where diversity represents a potential untapped source of competitive advantage. Taking time to encourage dialogue about deeply held beliefs helps tear down walls between employees while building the kind of bridges that can make our workplaces—and hopefully the world—a better place.