By Melissa J. Anderson

A new study by executive search firm Egon Zehnder suggests that executives are gaining a firm grasp on the importance of diversity at their companies, even though they may have difficulty in implementing a plan for achieving it.

The study polled 511 global executives who are part of the firm’s “Club of Leaders,” on how they feel about diversity and inclusion and how their companies are working to increase diversity. By and large, leaders felt very positive about diversity, with 96 percent reporting that “working in a diverse and inclusive environment is personally important to them.

Almost all (99 percent) say that there is a strong business case for diversity. But when it comes to implementing corporate programs to develop diversity within their companies, the respondents were less progressive. The study highlights the challenges companies have in bridging the gap between leadership support and line implementation.

Support for Diversity

According to Egon Zehnder, the study respondents were very appreciative of the effects of diversity. Almost three quarters (72 percent) said having a diverse workforce helps them recognize how “their own biases affect their judgment of others.”

This recognition is important, the firm believes.

“Most executives appear to realize that even well-intentioned leaders can succumb to unconscious stereotyping of those who are in some way different from themselves. This finding hints at a broad awakening. Facing the fact of bias, rather than pretending it does not exist, is a critical step toward crafting a Diversity and Inclusion culture that explicitly helps people manage their inevitable biases to the common good.”

Nine out of ten respondents (91 percent) said diversity helps broaden their horizons. Four out of five (81 percent) said diversity fosters more lively discussions. And almost three quarters (73 percent) said diversity “creates an organization that shows more respect for each individual.”

On the other hand, leaders also suggested a downside to diversity. The study says:

“Although nearly all the study participants say D&I is personally important to them, less than half suggest that working in a diverse environment is easy. Many apparently wonder about the potential downsides of D&I, such as positive discrimination, slower decision-making, increased operating costs and even the risk of undermining coherence and alignment.”

These doubts could be part of the reason executive support for diversity has not yet been realized in overwhelming action for building diversity within companies.

Practical Challenges

While the executives polled for the study came out strongly in support of diversity – and 80 percent say their companies actively pursue diversity – how they intend to get there is less clear. Only half (53 percent) say their company is making good progress on diversity.

When asked how their company encourages and enables diversity and inclusion, 58 percent said “top management commitment (with 32 percent reporting to be “in progress” on this method). On the other hand, only 24 percent said performance evaluations at their company assess individual contributions to D&I (14 percent said they were in progress on this, and seven  percent said they were planning it). But a full 55 percent said they did not have any plans in the works to include D&I as part of employee performance evaluations.

The report also notes that approaches to diversity are highly “numbers oriented.” It explains, “Nearly three-fourths of participants count gender among their company’s top three diversity priorities, but only half say their company gives similar weight to the more qualitative D&I dimension: “Diversity of perspectives and thinking.”

Finally, the study says, “Fewer than a third of the respondents report that their company has publicly communicated its diversity commitment.”

This is surprising – making a public commitment to diversity seems like the easiest thing a company can do, and may suggest that business leaders are uneasy about how the public will perceive a commitment to diversity and inclusion, especially at a time of economic uncertainty. Perhaps companies won’t fully strive toward workplace diversity until they are convinced the marketplace fully believes in the value of diversity.