Creating diverse teams takes work, but is worth the effort

Organizations that focus on diversity, equity and inclusion are more productive and employees are more satisfied

Incorporating diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) into work teams and organizations requires strong leadership and a great deal of effort. But the result—improved performance and emotional well-being among employees—makes the undertaking worthwhile.

That message was at the heart of “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion as the Secret to Successful Teams,” a panel discussion at the American College of Physicians’ 2022 Internal Medicine Meeting.

“You’re not doing this work because it’s the latest trendy thing or it’s a box you’ve got to check,” said Susan Hingle, MD, MACP, associate dean for human and organizational potential at the Southern Illinois University (SIU) School of Medicine. “You should be doing it because it will allow members of your team or your organization to reach their full potential. And in order to do that, people need to feel like they belong.”

Hingle illustrated the point using results of an employee well-being survey at the medical school. The survey found that factors such as an employee’s longevity or position at the school made little difference in their feelings about their job or the organization. But those who had experienced some form of bias reported substantially lower levels of well-being and engagement, Hingle said.

Building an inclusive team or organization requires a strong commitment from leadership, Hingle added. “Leaders are role models, and the ones who develop policies and priorities,” she said. “They are the ones who really establish the culture. And culture is the piece that links DEI and emotional well-being.”

One of the most important things leaders can do to create successful diverse and inclusive teams, she said, is to build relationships with team members. “Leaders who do this [DEI] well focus on getting to know team members, and making them feel valued for who they are and what they can bring to the table, and really calling that out intentionally,” she said.

John M. Flack, MD, MACP, professor and chair of the internal medicine department/hypertension at SIU School of Medicine, emphasized the importance of communication in building widespread support for DEI efforts.

“People really need to understand why it’s important to have an inclusive team, because otherwise it can come across like you’re just checking off a box or to be politically correct. There’s data to show that that companies in the top quartile of racial and ethnic diversity have higher profits than those who aren’t.

“One of the hardest things in messaging [about DEI] is getting people to understand that it’s not a zero-sum game, where somebody loses if somebody else wins,” he added. He cited the example of a gender-based survey measuring equity in salary and promotions at the school. “We found that it [bias] cuts both ways, it wasn’t just the usual thing you say where women get the short end of the stick,” he said. “So men shouldn’t be bummed out by a focus on gender equity because at the end of the day it makes things better for everyone.”

Tiffany Leung, MD, FACP, assistant professor of health, medicine and life sciences at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, and the panel’s moderator, noted that organizations seeking to build DEI sometimes fail to distinguish between “surface level” and “deeper level” diversity.

“Diversity on the basis of individual surface characteristics is important, but to get to where you unleash a team’s full potential you need that deeper level of diverse values, beliefs and experiences as well,” she said.

Another pitfall in building DEI, according to Hingle, is over-reliance on the concept of “hiring for fit.”

“Certainly it’s important that someone fits because if they feel like they don’t fit they’re unlikely to succeed,” she said. “But using ‘hiring for fit’ in evaluation tools allows implicit bias to enter into the decision.” And while everyone has biases to a certain extent, it’s important to be aware of them so they don’t influence the decision of whether someone is a good fit for your organization.

“The emphasis should always be on trying to build environments where people feel they can be their authentic selves, where their lived experiences can inform everything they do,” Hingle added. “When you create an environment that allows that to be unleashed, that’s when you’re going to find individuals and teams that thrive.”