Interview with Dr Katie Spearritt, CEO Diversity Partners

With 20+ years of experience working within Australian and globally listed companies, Katie Spearritt is the CEO of Diversity Partners and a global authority on Diversity and Inclusion.  Following our Diversity of Thinking event with Juliet Bourke, we caught up with Katie to explore how HR Leaders can put the theory into practice.

Diversity of thought seems like an obvious factor in good decision-making and innovation. Is it?

It might seem obvious, but the reality is that working with diversity – whether that’s different thinking approaches or different backgrounds such as gender and culture – is not easy.

When people take a different approach or put forward a different perspective to ours, it’s often uncomfortable because we naturally gravitate to people who are like us – it’s called affinity bias – and like to have our views confirmed rather than challenged (confirmation bias).

How can HR directors and business leaders start to apply the theory about diversity of thinking?

Just becoming aware of the six different thinking approaches is important, because it helps us to understand that our preferred approach is just one of many (and not necessarily the best!). And that getting a mix of approaches or perspectives makes for better decision-making on any team.

When we work with leadership teams, we facilitate an activity where people identify their preferred thinking approach and physically move to their preference. It’s a powerful and practical way to highlight the differences.

We’ve noticed each time we do this activity there is usually only one or two people on the executive team who prioritise people and risk-management. In a few workshops we’ve had the Chief Risk Officer or Legal Counsel call out ‘so this is why I sometimes feel ignored’! That’s led to some meaningful conversations about ensuring all voices are heard, really heard.

Can you share some more practical things that leaders can do to encourage different thinking approaches?

Before making a key decision in a meeting, we encourage teams to reflect if they’ve considered a range of different thinking approaches and credible alternatives, as well as unconscious biases that might be impacting their decision-making.

This means consciously slowing down our thinking.

‘Slow thinking’ is a recognised strategy to build inclusive leadership capability, and helps us avoid the error-prone biased decisions that can come from automatic ‘fast thinking’.

In a recent Peoplecorp interview, Simon Longstaff said ‘the greatest pressure on modern leaders is the absence of time to stop and think’. That’s something we hear time and time again, and it can be helpful for leaders to remember we all have a choice to call a ‘time out’, however brief it might be.

While seeking feedback from others is essential, some leaders go further by appointing a ‘devil’s advocate’ in meetings to normalise challenge. It’s important to rotate the devil’s advocate too.

One CEO we know routinely tells colleagues that ‘you have an obligation to disagree with me’ to reduce confirmation and sunflower bias.

It’s also important to think about basic things such as where you hold meetings and who gets invited. Decision making experts emphasise the importance of hearing from people who are ‘cognitively peripheral’ – who have information that is not generally known – rather than having discussions with people who share similar knowledge.

That’s why we suggest using different communication channels to receive input on a project or idea. Some team members will probably be more comfortable providing an alternative view in a follow up email or direct phone call rather than in a team meeting.

HR leaders can track employee perceptions of opportunities to contribute to decision-making and speak up through annual or pulse engagement surveys – that’s a valuable contribution to business success.

Are business leaders getting more serious about diversity of thought?

We’re seeing a growing interest to apply this research in the workplace. For example, a CEO of an industry superannuation fund contacted us to explore how bias might be getting in the way of effective decision-making on his team. His team was gender balanced and culturally diverse, and he appreciated the different perspectives that brought.

He wanted to go further, to identify their preferred approaches so they could consciously bring different perspectives to decision-making as they launched new products and expanded their market.

We’re also seeing more and more focus on the importance of diversity of thought for ethical decision-making and corporate governance.

Groupthink and confirmation bias have contributed to some big ethical failures in history. That’s why one global resources organisation we’ve worked with explicitly advises its leaders to ‘hear from the quietest person in the room’.

Do experts on diversity always get it right?

If only! For a start, we’re human so we’re prone to biases just as anyone else is.

Adapting to different thinking and learning styles is challenging for us too.

Recently a client asked us to facilitate a workshop for senior leaders in a range of locations around the world. We were reticent, as our preference is face-to-face learning to build conversations.

But we decided to give it a go, asking one of our team members used to working in virtual global operating environments to help us re-design content. We ended up with some new tools and our client reach has now extended from Melbourne to Mongolia!

Katie Spearritt is the CEO and Founder of Diversity Partners and is passionate about making workplaces more inclusive and productive for everyone – not only because it’s the right thing to do, but also because it’s good for business. With 20+ years of experience working within Australian and globally listed companies. She now oversees hundreds of client engagements and programs undertaken by the Diversity Partners team each year.

Before founding Diversity Partners, Katie was Head of Diversity for Hewlett Packard for Asia Pacific and Japan, and held senior Diversity & Culture positions with Coles Myer and NAB. She was also a member of BP’s global diversity and inclusion academy. Katie holds a PhD in Business & Economics (Equity & Diversity) from Monash University and a Bachelor of Arts (First-Class Honours) from the University of Queensland. She was a Board Member of the Mental Health Council of Australia from 2008 to 2011.

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