Diversity Is Not Enough When Building a Strong Team

Inclusive teams, when compared with those who do not foster psychological safety, deliver 60 percent better results and make decisions twice as fast with half as many meetings.

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Illustration: Lightspring / Shutterstock

As the cannabis industry rapidly expands across the world, its customers, workers, and products continue to diversify. While demographic diversity has become a standard in business, the functionality of a diverse professional team is often overlooked. Professors Amy C. Edmundson and Henrik Bresman dove into the realities of diverse teams in a recent study conducted at the Harvard Business School. They found that in today’s global market, diversity alone is not enough to give businesses the competitive edge they’re seeking. 

Innovation is often born from the convergence of varying perspectives, but this type of innovation cannot occur without collective understanding and effective communication. People with different identities, backgrounds, and experiences have specific ways of interacting that can clash or cause miscommunication. To foster a highly productive cannabis business with a diverse workforce, leadership must intentionally create an inclusive environment. 

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The significance of diversity

While many businesses in the United States and Canada think of cannabis as a North American industry, it is more accurately described as a global market. Every day, powerful cannabis companies like Canopy Growth and Curaleaf are expanding their reach. From South Africa to Colombia, we are amidst an exciting wave of global legalization. The rapid expansion of the cannabis industry is just one reason businesses are centering diversity in their strategies for success.

Prohibition enforcement, in both the United States and abroad, has disproportionately affected those in lower socioeconomic classes and people of color. As more governments continue to legalize cannabis for recreational and medicinal use, it is vital for those who suffered most from prohibition policies to access power in the cannabis industry. Furthermore, many Communities of Color hold valuable generational knowledge and cultural understandings of cannabis. Not only does the industry have a responsibility to empower the communities targeted by prohibition enforcement, but cannabis also has much to gain from the perspectives of our diverse community. 

In the larger context of business, diverse teams are viewed as a strength. In Bresman and Edmondson’s study on diverse teams, the vast majority of executives they interacted with were convinced that more diverse teams will outperform less diverse teams—particularly when their work involved innovation. The argument in favor of this assumption is partly true, different perspectives and ideas are essential to achieving breakthrough performance. However, the mere presence of diverse individuals does not facilitate the competitive advantage businesses desire in the global marketplace. 

The difference between diversity and inclusion

When businesses fail to consider the implications of a diverse workforce, they lose access to the full potential of diverse teams. There is an important distinction to be drawn between diverse representation and inclusion. For diverse teams to be effective, there has to be inclusion. An inclusive environment fosters the well-being of all people. 

Bresman and Edmondson’s research in drug development, an innovation-intensive setting that mirrors many aspects of the cannabis industry, revealed an additional key element in a diverse workplace environment: psychological safety. They define psychological safety as a shared belief that team members will not be rejected or embarrassed for speaking up with their ideas, questions, and concerns. Achieving psychological safety is central to achieving an authentically inclusive environment. 

The concept of psychological safety is by no means novel; cultural competence and intentional inclusion are continuously growing in popularity. According to a study from Cloverpop, inclusive teams deliver 60 percent better results and make decisions two times faster, with half as many meetings. For those determined to get ahead in the evolving cannabis industry, implementing inclusion as a pillar of business practices is unequivocally essential.  

Maximizing productivity with an inclusive environment

Creating an inclusive environment requires us to be vulnerable and honest about our experiences, something to which many people are averse. For this reason, psychological safety must begin with leadership. Leaders in the workplace can begin this process by sharing their stories and revealing how they translate their values into action. Offering one’s narrative and encouraging others to do the same helps build a collective narrative. When teams are aware of their individual differences, they can build shared understanding and accomplish much more in a shorter amount of time. 

Bresman and Edmondson offer three specific practices for diverse teams building psychological safety: bridging boundaries, framing, and inquiry. These practices hold particular importance for the cannabis industry not only because the cannabis community is extremely diverse, but because societal understandings of cannabis are not always favorable. As a community, the cannabis industry must have the skills to effectively collaborate with people of varying cultures to correct misconceptions about the plant and create opportunities for expansion. 

Bridging Boundaries

Bridging boundaries, framing, and inquiry are practices that teams can use in their daily operations. Bridging boundaries is a tactical tool leaders can use to gain traction in their collaborative work. According to the researchers’ study on psychological safety and diversity, it is important for teams to develop a consensus on their objectives, expertise, and challenges. They suggest leaders facilitate open conversation about hopes, goals, resources, skills, concerns, and obstacles. These conversations are task-relevant and do not require team members to divulge their entire life stories. They do require team members to be vulnerable within the context of their work, which helps diverse groups overcome cultural barriers and achieve innovation. 

Framing

Framing is about helping team members reach a common understanding of both the work at hand and its context. The researchers suggest two particularly useful frames for diverse teams; goals for the meeting and the value of expertise. Meetings should be framed as opportunities for information sharing, not just decision-making. It is also important to frame differences among team members as a source of value. It is difficult to overcome the belief that the way we interpret the world as individuals is the correct way. Leaders can begin meetings by setting explicit intentions and priming team members to recognize the potential of diverse perspectives in problem-solving scenarios. Vocally acknowledging the different perspectives in the room can provide agency and legitimacy to everyone present. 

Inquiry

Inquiry also requires vocal acknowledgment. Bresman and Edmondson write, “The best way to help people contribute their thoughts is to ask them to do so. It’s that simple. When team leaders — and others — practice genuine inquiry that draws out others’ ideas, listening thoughtfully to what they hear in response, psychological safety in the team grows.” Asking open-ended questions with a genuine desire to learn helps team members build shared ownership of the team’s goals. Instead of asking the question: What did you do to create this situation?, ask questions that reflect the complexity and causality of collaborative work. For example, a leader should ask, What did I do to put you in this situation? and How can I help?

Cannabis entrepreneurs building psychological safety

While the industry has a hefty weight to bear when it comes to equity and inclusion, there are activists across the world prioritizing the empowerment of diverse entrepreneurs in cannabis. Recently, activist and marketing professional Jennifer Whetzel founded the Women in Cannabis Study and published its first report in March 2022. While the study revealed a slew of industry barriers disproportionately affecting women, the queer community, and people of color, it also exemplified the inclusion efforts of cannabis professionals in North America. 

Tsehaitu-AbyeEntrepreneurs like Tsehaitu Abye, founder of Black Dragon Breakfast Club (BDBC), have built their businesses on the need for psychological safety in the cannabis industry. Abye is the daughter of an immigrant farmer who was deported for cannabis cultivation, and she is determined to build a community where this type of injustice does not occur. BDBC’s main objective is to help Black, indigenous, and people of color communities reclaim their agency in the evolving hemp and cannabis markets. 

As an Ethiopian-American activist, organizer, artist, entrepreneur, and PA Farmers Union member, Abye strategically connects restaurants with the developing cannabis industry. She engages in disruptive marketing, creative story-telling (a pillar of psychological safety practices), and educational content production across the United States. In January 2022, Abye launched the Flower Puff Crew, a cannabis wellness series developed in partnership with Black-owned businesses and practitioners to address the inequities for Black women in the industry. BDBC’s work is an inspiring example of intentionally inclusive collaboration in the cannabis industry encouraging all businesses to prioritize psychological safety in their operational and development strategies. 

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