—— Sofia Falk, from Sweden, is considered one of the most tenacious champions of diversity and inclusion. Still, she doesn’t think much of expensive diversity programs or thick stacks of guidelines—and offers suggestions for what companies can do instead to become truly diverse workplaces.

Collage aus vielen unterschiedlichen Gesichtern auf beigem Untergrund.


Ms. Falk, you’ve been advocating for more diversity for more than fifteen years. When did you first realize that our societies might have a problem with this?
———— I grew up in Colombia, a child of Swedish parents, and have studied in a variety of countries. So I’m familiar with the feeling of not belonging to the majority. What really opened my eyes was my time serving in the Swedish military. I was twenty, and in my unit I was one of three women among around sixty men. Although I was better than many of my comrades in the half-marathon, at the shooting range and at the Military Academy, my achievements were never really recognized. My successes were instead considered mere exceptions or strokes of luck—simply because I was a woman. My comrades were kind to me in our personal interactions, but my status as an outsider weighed on me. The pressure even caused my performance to deteriorate.
After serving in the military, you then started working in the corporate world. Why was that?
———— That had to do with my work for the intelligence services. There I was selected for a mission in Kosovo because I was good and because I am a woman. To understand why, you have to know that agents need contacts and close relationships built on trust with people from diverse segments of the populace in order to obtain information. This can only succeed with a team made up of very different people. The intelligence services had understood why diversity is important in a team: not for reasons of fairness and gender equality—that’s just a positive side effect—but rather because it’s crucial for operational success. It was then clear to me that I wanted to bring this insight into the corporate world, because there, too, a variety of perspectives naturally leads to greater success and more innovation.
What’s improved in the business world in terms of diversity since then?
———— Not all that much, unfortunately, although companies are now investing a lot of time and money in the issue—something I call the “Diversity Paradox.” Numerous companies announce guidelines on diversity, implement elaborate programs, create networks for minorities, introduce quota systems and use anonymization processes for recruiting, but the expected positive results often fail to materialize. The reason for this is that diversity is still being misunderstood. Many companies believe they would be on the right path if they fulfill percentage targets for women in the boardroom or strive to get more people with diverse ethnic backgrounds into their organizations. Unfortunately, diversity just for diversity’s sake doesn’t create value. What creates value is the integration of this diversity. Inclusion is the key.

“A variety of perspectives naturally leads to more success and innovation.”

Sofia Falk
But isn’t it already a big step forward if more women and people with different backgrounds play an important role in companies?
———— This is progress, clearly, but it isn’t enough all by itself. In many modern companies, both among the big players and in small startups, there are now very diverse-appearing and international teams. But despite the putative differences, these are often people who come from the same universities and who have similar job and life experiences. In addition to factors of diversity that are easily visible, such as gender, age, skin color and physical characteristics, we must also consider more hidden diversity. This includes less obvious factors such as sociocultural influences, religion, values, sexual orientation, personal interests and even more subtle differen­ces. For instance, whether someone is more extroverted or introverted, intuitive or analytical, or detail oriented or pragmatic.
What do these sorts of things have to do with a company’s performance?
———— All of these characteristics shape the way people perceive their environment, filter information, solve problems and ultimately make decisions. And it’s exactly this invisible diversity that can give rise to great strength if it is allowed to productively and creatively develop. However, this isn’t achieved via lofty guidelines, but rather through a culture in which the diversity of perspectives from coworkers, partners, customers and other stakeholders is truly welcome and consciously encouraged. This is what inclusion is all about.
But doesn’t that take the idea of diversity ad absurdum? At some point, an executive board consisting only of white men could defend the status quo by arguing: “We may look very similar outwardly, but we all have very different personalities.”
———— That’s not how it’s meant, of course. Visible diversity must continue to be promoted—especially at management levels. It defines what is considered normal and sends a very important signal to the outside world: all people are welcome and have the same opportunities at our company. But, as I said, that’s not enough. In everyday life, the corporate culture is primarily determined by the ­people who make up the majority. They determine the way people think, act and communicate. It takes a lot of courage and self-confidence in this type of environment for newcomers and outsiders to contribute with their perspectives. And this can cause a great potential of innovative ideas to be lost. To prevent this, business organizations must reorganize their thinking, rewire their work processes and thus give this invisible diversity be a voice.

“Don’t be too ambitious on the topic of diversity! Change takes time.”

What methods do you recommend companies use to achieve this?
———— My approach is based on behavioral design. The basic idea is simple: design a situation, a context or an environment in such a way that it makes it as easy as possible for people or groups to show a desired behavior. More specifically, make sure to include people with different perspectives in decision-making processes. It’s often just small things and simple routines. Teams, for example, can let newcomers or inexperienced members speak first in meetings. They can also appoint a “devil’s advocate” whose function is to radically challenge established standpoints. Or they can ask “wildcards”—coworkers from other departments—for their opinions. A fairly effective exercise is also to place an empty chair in the room and to ask: What sort of person should be sitting here whose perspective is lacking in our current project? That type of person is then invited to the next meeting.
Yet these sorts of methods don’t make meetings any shorter.
———— That’s true. Inclusion slows down processes and that feels a bit counterintuitive at first, especially in the business world. Our brains are programmed to make decisions instinctively and quickly. We typically rely on familiar concepts and avoid challenging established patterns of thought. For many everyday decisions, this behavior makes a lot of sense and is efficient. But particularly in critical project phases, it’s essential to pause and consider new perspectives to make better and more innovative decisions. Such phases should be deliberately defined to make targeted use of diversity. It’s possible that a company doesn’t even have to change its personnel structure; it would be enough to highlight the invisible diversity within its own ranks or to obtain selective support from external partners.

Can the value of diversity be quantified?
———— There are now many studies that prove that increased diversity strengthens the innovative ability, adaptability and profitability of economic organizations. Equally telling are the experiences of companies that have had projects painfully fail precisely because they failed to incorporate diversity.
Can you give any examples?
———— A European automobile manufacturer wanted to market a luxury sedan outside of Europe. However, the sedan was designed by an all-European design team that concentrated the car’s luxury features in the driver’s area. What the team didn’t consider was that it is still a symbol of status on other continents to be driven around by a chauffeur. So the sedan’s owner sits in the back, where no luxury was provided. That’s why the car was a flop and the launch was cancelled. In another example, a global retailer headquartered in Sweden planned to invite its employees to a paintball match during the annual employee event. It never occurred to the planning team that such an activity might have been disconcerting to its employees from Israel and Palestine. So the well-intentioned event, which was supposed to promote a positive working environment, had the exact opposite effect. I know of countless other stories like these that have arisen simply because of a lack of diversity and inclusion.
What do you recommend companies do to avoid such mistakes?
———— Don’t be too ambitious on the topic of diversity. You don’t need any elaborate programs or management strategies. What’s much more important is that diversity and inclusion be lived in teams. But don’t expect any quick, immediately noticeable successes. Change takes time. Work cultures that have grown over the course of decades can’t transform sustainably in just a few months. The path to greater diversity is a marathon, not a sprint.
You once described Pippi ­Longstocking as your role model. Are you still a fan of hers?
———— Pippi was my idol as a kid. She challenged conventions and power structures and stood up for other people. Many others came along for me later, for instance the hacker Neo from the science-fiction film The Matrix; he discovers that what appears to be reality is actually just a virtual simulation and tries to free humanity from this captivity. That’s exactly my approach: we don’t have to accept the conventional patterns in society and the economy as they are but can change them in a positive way.


Peter Rutherhagen