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It’s no secret that the construction industry has a diversity problem. Data shows 90% of construction workers are male and 88.4% of the workforce are Caucasian. Construction notably lags behind the already lacking national average for workplace diversity. In fact, according to the Willis Towers Watson Construction Risk Index, limited workforce diversity is a top 20 risk for construction firms through 2027.

Not only does the homogenous state of construction inhibit valuable, fresh perspectives, there are numerous business cases for diversity. For example, companies that better represent the communities in which they work often possess a competitive advantage. A McKinsey report found culturally and ethnically diverse construction teams are 35% more likely to outperform competitors.

The value in building diverse teams is clear. For years, conversations on diversity have delivered the rationale for building diverse teams, with articles and reports quantifying the multitude of benefits to businesses. There is little push back on the virtues of having diverse teams from any performance-minded leadership board. Yet, rarely does one come across data, guidelines or references which communicate what it feels like to be part of a diverse team. This is where the emphasis needs to be placed and where teaching, coaching and expectation-setting are most needed.

Expect Conflict in Search for Progress

Diversity by definition is the condition of having or being composed of differing elements. Plainly stated, having diverse participants at the table brings varying perspectives, a range of experiences and a host of strengths to leverage against business challenges. It truly is the embodiment of 1+1=3. 

But what does this feel like? What is to be expected when working diverse teams? Diversity isn’t as simple as hiring people from different nationalities, genders and identities. With this mindset it’s impossible to reap the real benefits of bringing together people with different backgrounds, experiences and opinions. The real progress comes when diverse teams learn how to work together and solve problems with respect and patience.

Investing in Diversity

A properly staffed team will not be an echo chamber for a singular voice, but a cacophony of voices saying, “have you considered" or “what about this?" Those who only say “yes” to keep the peace need not apply. A group of people who simply agree and conform to avoid rocking the boat will not help a business reach its fullest potential. 

At the same time, diverse teams bring new perspectives, opinions and ideas that often cause friction. While it may be difficult to push through, friction usually leads to tremendous outcomes. Yet, balancing diversity with cohesion isn’t easy.

When friction arises, which it will, teams must do the messy job of leaning into it and working together to get to the bottom of why the friction exists in the first place. The point of conflict should also be the point of focus. Teams must get curious and comfortable in the uncomfortable. It’s likely a sign of significant progress.

Friction often comes from an emotional place and can be challenging for teams and leaders to understand, let alone address. The best way to take control of friction is to pause the conversation, realize the team has reached a sticking point and work together to break it down into components to identify where the friction exists. This requires a plan to remove emotion from the conversation and take time to better understand and explore differing ideas and opinions. Taking the time to get to the bottom of the friction can lead to a breakthrough moment. This may require getting more data or bringing in people with more expertise on the topic. Or, talking to customers or clients to get more information.

It isn’t realistic to expect people to understand each other by just putting them on the same team. However, with a common goal and taking the position that no one knows the right answer to the challenge at hand, teams can leave the friction behind and rally around the decision, together.

Diversity Solves Top Industry Challenge

Diversity is an often overlooked solution to one of the industry’s biggest challenges, a shortage of skilled labor. During the recession of 2008/2009, workers were forced to adapt their skill sets to other industries and few returned to construction when the industry rebounded. Coupled with a significant number of retirees in recent years, finding skilled workers who truly understand the nuances and challenges of construction isn’t easy and is especially challenging during a time when there’s no shortage of work to do. 

Diversity has tremendous potential to help solve this problem. If companies really want to close the labor gap, they will make an effort to attract and include non-traditional workers. And when they do, they’ll most certainly experience conflict and friction, but most importantly, progress, growth and the breakthroughs that come from teams with diverse opinions and ideas.

Diversity is a worthy endeavor and one that will fulfill many goals, business and human. Progress is hard and sometimes messy but, by leaning into friction, the construction industry will advance and reap the many benefits of diversity and inclusion. Be brave, take the first step and embrace the challenge.


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