Diversity Is Hard, But It’s Worth It

Diverse teams perform better, but they can feel less comfortable at times. Employee network leaders at SAP want to talk about it.

By now, the message has gotten through that diversity and inclusion are good for business. Nevertheless, the subject of diversity evokes very different responses; some people feel inspired by it while others become uneasy at the mere mention of the word. Why is that?

Diversity is Hard

Diversity is multi-dimensional and therefore tricky. It goes beyond visible features such as gender or skin color, and can also concern different ways of thinking, communication styles, or perspectives.

No one would dispute that it’s much easier to work with someone who has the same point of view as you. Yet according to the Harvard Business Review, mixed teams produce better results – precisely because it is harder for their members to find common ground.

“We shouldn’t shy away from it just because it’s difficult,” says Sue Sutton, who handles Reputation Management for the Global Diversity & Inclusion Organization at SAP. “Disruption is what makes us innovative. We learn more and make better decisions when we work with people who have different perspectives and ideas. It might be challenging at times but it’s important to listen carefully and be open to learning something new.”

Good Management is Crucial

A study entitled The Inclusive Leader by global organizational consultants Korn Ferry Institute found that mixed teams produce better results in the long term, but only if they are well managed.

Shuchi Sharma, global lead for Gender Intelligence at SAP, favors managers who encourage discourse and can manage controversy, “because that is what is required to move forward when you have so many different perspectives. You must be comfortable with volatile discourse – as long as it’s constructive, professional, and never personal – to find new and different solutions to old problems.”

When speaking at SAPPHIRE NOW in 2018, former U.S. President Barack Obama confirmed this. Being intentional in cultivating diverse viewpoints and perspectives had always helped him to get the full picture, he said.

We Are Human, We Are Biased

However, being intentional in cultivating diversity is not a no-brainer. “Very often, our decisions are informed by biases that we are not even aware of ourselves,” says Niarchos Pombo, global lead for Pride@SAP.

There is a well-known example of this phenomenon in the field of music. Until well into the 1970s, the proportion of women in the five largest U.S. orchestras was less than five percent. That figure has now increased to around 30 percent thanks to the introduction of blind auditions, in which applicants for the orchestra remain hidden behind a screen during their audition and are judged purely on their virtuosity.

Pombo recommends the SAP learning program “Focus on Insight” to SAP employees, which educates participants about unconscious bias by intentionally revealing it in real-life scenarios.

“It’s important not just for hiring managers, but for everyone at SAP to know what unconscious bias is,” says Pombo.

Belonging Precedes Innovation

“Technology is great. But without people, technology is nothing,” says Marleen Verhaag, a business development expert and management consultant at SAP and active member of the Business Women’s Network.

“It’s important that people feel that they belong and that they can be their authentic selves,” says Verhaag, because only then “can they bring their best abilities to the workplace.”

“When you have a sense of family around you and you feel included, you don’t hold back the innovation that can come from your mind and from your mouth,” says Kuran Williams, a representative of the SAP Black Employee Network.

But it’s not just about creating an internal feel-good factor.

“It’s important for a business like SAP at the forefront of digital leadership to have a diverse pool of thought to make an impact in the world. The world is not one person, it’s a facet of many different people,” Williams explains.

Big Splash at SAPPHIRE NOW

For precisely this reason, SAP stepped up its focus on diversity and inclusion themes at the recent SAPPHIRE NOW customer conference in Orlando, demonstrating the company is aware of the needs of its diverse customer base.

Raúl Alfonso, regional head of Go-to-Market for the Americas in Innovative Business Solutions and member of Latinos@SAP, has attended SAPPHIRE NOW many times and speaks from experience: “That’s what customers are looking for, they come here to feel included.”

Customer needs are one thing, but IT companies also struggle with the global shortage of specialists. According to Alfonso, SAP’s future success depends on its ability to bring in young people from different backgrounds, such as the black and Latino communities, and make its diversity commitment visible.

“I think there’s still a misconception that SAP is still not a very diverse place to work in,” says Alfonso. “SAPPHIRE NOW is a perfect place to make it visible, to make a big splash.”

Going Forward: More Diversity at All Levels

Verhaag and the other employee network leads wants to see clearer responsibilities and investments at all levels of the organization. “We talk a great deal about diversity and inclusion, but we need to take more action to take it even further,” she says.

And if the representatives from the employee networks could wish for one change at SAP, what would that be? Their unanimous response is that they’d like to see more diversity on all management levels throughout the organization — including the SAP Executive Board.

In a climate where innovation is best achieved when utilizing different perspectives, SAP sees its employee base as a strategic business asset and has championed diversity, inclusion, and equality for all. The company’s diversity and inclusion program enables people, processes, and technology to ensure a bias-free environment for its more than 90,000 employees. The program covers gender equity, cross-generational intelligence, culture and identity, and support for and the integration of differently-abled people into the workforce. While we’ve made great strides at SAP, fostering an inclusive work environment requires focus, commitment, and takes time — it’s a journey!