Leadership & Culture, Performance | Feb 25, 2021
The benefits of diversity are manifold, but its implementation needs the support of leadership and sensible implementation - it cannot be done without thought and without the proper support and long term vision.

Organisational diversity enables innovation and creativity that can give a team a competitive edge.

By Lorena Torres Ronda

This statement might sound obvious, perhaps even good on paper, but across the sports industry it is still the exception rather than the rule. Organisations must be intentional in creating the conditions for diversity to flourish.

When designing teams (leadership positions, heads of departments and the organisation chart – their staff) one needs to have a firm grasp of its composition, goals, structure (e.g., mechanisms of collaboration and communication, drivers of innovation, delivering results), roles, and tasks. Some of the aspects to consider are how big or small the department should be (number of members), who is in the team (demographics, personality, values, abilities), and roles and tasks.

If we consider diversity as a strength, we need to think about which type of diversity can help us to drive the programme we want to build. Some of the most powerful dimensions of diversity are innovation and creativity, especially when the members of the group are characterised by high functional diversity (areas of expertise) and have a high level of education.

But diversity must be supported; cohesion, respect and integration must be actively promoted. To overcome some of the negative effects and bias against diversity, it is paramount to share vision, goals and objectives, which ultimately refers to values (different and similar) and ‘person-team fit’. It is vital to be clear from the outset in setting roles and responsibilities and it is crucial that people agree.

When talking about diversity, we need to reflect on which type of diversity can bring the performance of the team to the next level. What diversity means for us: is it gender, hiring women in a male-dominated organisation? Is it race, hiring ethnic minority staff in a white, male dominant environment? Is it age, nationality, educational background?

For example, the act of hiring women or African American staff, if they have attended the same schools, learned from the same professors and mentors, went to the ‘same book clubs’, or people who surround themselves with people with the same ideas or those who will support them in their ideas and the like, such hires probably won’t bring functional diversity but superficial diversity.

Diversity can come from the traits mentioned above, but also importantly from deep-level diversity: personality, values, abilities or beliefs. These characteristics might be accompanied by challenges and biases that must be taken into account and managed when conflict emerges.

In recent times, there seems to be a greater sensitivity to the inclusion of diversity in the organisation charts of teams and departments. However, we can sometimes see when a team’s drive for greater diversity has been reduced to a box-checking exercise. It offers little progress when teams pigeon-hole women in particular roles, such as psychology, nutrition or sports science. It might be the case that a team would not consider hiring a female strength coach, not because her ideas and systems lack validity, but because she cannot mirror the physical appearance of an NFL or NBA player. High performance sport must move beyond such notions if it is to harness the forward-thinking, innovation, creativity and, ultimately, equality, that happens when teams are compelled to question their long-held assumptions.

To illustrate an example, the culture of western medicine has a great influence on the cure of disease (or injuries in our context), attack the disease in a very analytical way: e.g., if you have a dietary deficiency, you take artificial supplements. In contrast, (and without being an expert myself) oriental medicine presents a more holistic and prevention-based approach, more focused on whole plant-based foods, plants and roots to boost the immune system and prevent diseases, for example. With the appropriate scientific evidence-based support, one or the other paradigm may be adequate at certain times, or simply complemented. Having only one point of view, or the same point of view, may be limiting our advancement of knowledge or, ultimately, performance. The question will not be asked, let alone answered, if the team is not open-minded enough to even explore the possibility.

Another example could be the paradigms, systems and procedures to approach certain aspects of training, such as strength training. In Spain, elite sport has been greatly influenced by the work of Paco Seirul.lo at Futbol Club Barcelona, where he emphasises that performance specificity comes from practising the sport rather than spending time in the weight room. Numerous team sports in Spain approach strength training from a progression in specificity within the sport’s characteristics and needs, while leaders from other geographies might base their work on other strength development approaches, such as strength manifestations (e.g., hypertrophy, power, etc.). Perhaps the correct approach is neither one nor the other, but to use what is most appropriate at each moment depending on the goals and the needs of the team and the player. Having members of the staff who work under the same standard can be a limiting factor for progress.

As part of addressing diversity, it could also be considered whether a specialist (focused on the efficiency of the task) or a generalist (focused on a broader vision and progress) is needed. On a personal note, being a specialist-generalist stood me in good stead when I served as a performance director with my recent teams. It enabled me to pursue more diverse approaches to performance questions. I have been able to conduct high level conversations with subject specialists and, whenever I didn’t know something, I’d know who to ask and I could either provide my athletes with solutions or at least let them know where to look for that information. I sincerely believe this has enabled me to explore more diverse thinking and, consequently, more innovative performance solutions.

Support for diversity must come from the people doing the hiring and for the people they hire – that is paramount. Those individuals coming in from the outside must be given a voice, especially in challenging environments where coaches or other colleagues might be reluctant to listen in the first instance. Those doing the hiring must also trust that the people are experts in their field. It can take time, especially if that person is working in a second language and there is a risk of being perceived as less knowledgeable or less expert because of the language barrier or a broader cultural misunderstanding.

There are, for example, some cultures where it is a courtesy to let others speak first and to be quieter in work settings, while in others, the dominant culture is loud or individuals are expected to use very direct language for criticism and feedback, which can create confusion or frustration if you are not prepared for the new environment.

Understanding what talent is, how to recognise it, where to find it, how to recruit it and how to manage it will be part of the process of building teams, and diversity might be a key part of that talent.

Firstly, having a strategy and hiring plan prepares the framework and the way forward. Recruiting the right person for the right place/task is key, rather than attempting to check the box. Once the team is constructed, mentoring, supporting and creating a talent pipeline should be part of the process too, to be able to manage, engage and retain that talent. When you design your programme, ensure that people can learn, grow and provide them with education pathways. It’s going to help the team grow as you diversify, will prove to be rewarding, and provide job satisfaction.

“Strong cultures exist when employees are intensely committed to a shared set of values and norms, but the effects depend on what those values and norms are. If you are going to build a strong culture, it’s paramount to make diversity one of your core values (…). In hiring, instead of using similarity to gauge cultural fit, assess cultural distribution.”
Adam Grant, Originals: How Non-Conformists Change the World

Lorena Torres Ronda is a renowned sports scientist and performance specialist who has worked for some of the biggest names in elite sport including the Philadelphia 76ers, San Antonio Spurs and FC Barcelona.

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