Pigeonholes, People and Talent Potential: Diversity Key, Safety First


When we think of biases in the workplace, our minds first consider issues of unfairness related to gender or ethnicity. However, honouring deep diversity at work also means fostering inclusiveness of mind: understanding employees’ work styles, diverse ways of thinking and enabling everyone to shine on.

Typically, after hiring someone who is enthusiastic, passionate and “just right” for the position, we see them through a wide-angle lens of positive anticipation and possibilities. In a smaller team, we may be curious about the new employee and eager to see the full deployment of their personal and professional skills in action.

Of Pigeonholes and Possibility 

Unfortunately, over time, our natural tendency towards unconscious biases tend to synthesize and morph our perception into a rather limited view of that employee. As our brain seeks efficiency in a complex world, we inadvertently create simplified, convenient versions of people to organize our social and physical environment.

Beyond the “honeymoon phase,” we may unknowingly end up slotting people into pigeonholes as our view of them rigidifies, thereby narrowing the window of possibilities. As a result, we may later by-pass the chance to recommend an employee ripe for a promotion or a new role on the team.

Countering Unconscious Bias

In a Forbes Coaches Council article, Unconscious Bias in the Workplace, Laura Berger points to some of the effects of biases as hidden drivers in our minds: limiting employee development, undermining retention rates and enabling a disconnected culture. When mid to high level positions are sourced through referrals, the tendency is for the like-likes-like dynamic to reign supreme.

To counter this, Berger suggest that leaders and HR professionals ask themselves where unconscious bias is seeping into the company and how to dispel it to prevent it from impacting the organization?

Although biases include much more then gender and ethnicity or culture, Berger mentions that research shows the importance of continuing to address these most common biases. Quoting from the McKinsey’s Delivering Through Diversity Report, “Gender, ethnic, and cultural diversity, particularly within executive teams, continue to be correlated to superior financial performance across multiple countries worldwide.” 

Yet, as there a continued neglect of diversity across organizations, a mindset reset is in order.

Cognitive Diversity

Exploring the concept of deep diversity, we need to include cognitive diversity — the unique variations of people’s working styles, core values, attitudes, ways of thinking, creating and participating in the team in which they belong.

In their article, Pioneers, Drivers, Integrators and Guardians, in the January 2019 Harvard Business Review, Suzanne M. Johnson Vickberg and Kim Christfort point out that existing personality tests were not tailored for the workplace. While striving to better understand, manage and capitalize on differences between people, Deloitte created a system called Business Chemistry that identifies the four main work styles and strategies for accomplishing shared goals while honouring inclusiveness. Johnson Vickberg and Christford explain how they conducted research using the four working styles model to optimize complementary diverse and effective teams.

Pioneers, Drivers, Integrators and Guardians

In brief, pioneers are energizers who value imagination and possibilities. They are risk-takers, intuitive and creative thinkers focused on the big-picture. Guardians value stability, order and rigour. They are risk-averse, pragmatic and focused on facts, data and details. Drivers value challenge and momentum while they seek to win, compete and get results. Using data and logic, and black-and-white perspectives, they tackle problems head on. Integrators value connection, relationships and responsibility to the team. They perceive everything as relative and are diplomatic, while striving to gain consensus.

Johnson Vickberg and Christfort discuss the results of working with large companies and point out that the four working styles served as a common language enabling everyone to better understand their difference. They also suggest ways to generate “productive friction” by creating complementary partnership within teams. Additionally, they speak of ensuring that integrators, who are often also introverts, be heard and given the chance to make their invaluable contribution, lest they might be drowned out by drivers and pioneers; these quieter types are also at risk of being pigeonholed and overlooked for new opportunities.

No Right or Wrong in First Steps

In interview with Reza Rahmani, executive coach and leadership development consultant, I gathered insights about how to draw contributions from everyone, regardless of personality, core values or work styles. As an engineer himself, Reza said that he understands his profession as including a higher proportion of logically-minded introverts, which is otherwise 30 per cent on average.

In group processes that provides opportunities for everyone to contribute, such a workshop or group coaching, these personality types will be more comfortable contributing after hearing that their answers do not need to be precise or contain accurate analysis. Rather, if they realize that the process is about sharing perspectives, insights and ideas in a “no right or wrong” conversational approach, they are much more likely to be comfortable participating.

Specifically, as a way of raising the comfort level of participation in a large room, Rahmani said he will suggest people pair up to discuss an issue or focus point; then the pair goes to another pair and share ideas as a foursome, following which there might be a last joining to another group of four. Alternatively, most groups of 4 will be invited to share the salient points of their conversations with the larger group.

This has proven to raise the level of collective intelligence in the “quietest” room, along with evoking a wondrous synergy that can inspire even more new ideas and shake up the stasis/unconscious biases of our otherwise limited perceptions of people and issues.

As With All Things: Safety First

Of course, whether in a group event, the daily workplace or one-on-one coaching, psychological safety is paramount. Among its numerous benefits, providing psychological safety helps to counter the limitations of the biased or tainted perceptions we may form while influenced by gossip or, in time, a toxic culture.

A report on psychological health issued by the Canadian Standards Association in 2016 defines a psychologically healthy and safe workplace as: “a workplace that promotes employees’ psychological well-being and actively works to prevent harm to worker psychological health, including in negligent, reckless, or intentional ways.” And now, with the new psychological safety standards in Occupational Health and Safety Laws that came into effect in June 2018, every organization must decode its meaning and the impact on their business.

Knowing that psychological safety is on a continuum, we may rightly wonder, to what extent our employees and colleagues perceive their workplace as feeling “safe.”. Perhaps an anonymous, simple survey could assist on taking the pulse on this often hard to assess, yet essential quality of the workplace.

Most certainly, education about the specific risk factors associated with poor psychological health and safety can generate the necessary awareness as a first step towards taking remedial action. Whether it’s discrimination, unfair treatment, excessive micro-management, overly stressful working conditions or harassment, understanding the problem enables everyone involved to respond and seek solutions.

With increased psychological safety and awareness, HR professionals can strive to overcome the limitations of biases, while cultivating an expansive and inclusive frame of mind that can inspire both individual and organizational success.



Professional speaker, author and business coach, Isabelle St-Jean, RSW, PCC brings to her clients two decades of experience in leading, educating and providing practical solutions to major work/life challenges and transitions.

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