U.S. Chamber President Suzanne Clark interviews Stephen Shih, NASA's head of diversity

Diversity is not about differences. That's the way Stephen Shih sees it. As Associate Administrator, Diversity and Equal Opportunity at NASA, Shih is responsible for ensuring that NASA's 17,000-plus workforce represents a wide range of viewpoints, so its employees can do the best and most creative work possible.

"To me, it's really about having access to the entire universe of possibilities," Shih said.

According to Shih, research proves that diverse organizations have better performance, greater market share, make better decisions and even have better ethics. He recently sat down to discuss this topic with U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Suzanne Clark in "5 Business Lessons," a series in which Clark interviews leaders from a variety of fields to learn the skills they apply to their work and illuminate how they apply to running a businesses.

In this episode, Clark reveals five key business lessons from Shih's experience building a diverse, innovative team at NASA.

Lesson 1 – Diversity can mitigate the blind spots. Diversity of thinking and perspectives drives the best solutions, said Shih. When you have different people with different perspectives and thinking, you're better able to avoid groupthink and optimism bias.

Lesson 2 – As a leader, speak last. Employees tend to agree with the people in leadership positions, especially if they are the first to speak. That's why NASA officials often aim to be the last one to speak, Shih explained. This way, other team members contribute their unique viewpoints, rather than simply saying "yes" to whatever the leader says.

Lesson 3 – Encourage dissent. It's important to create an environment of "psychological safety" in the workplace, so that employees feel comfortable speaking up and sharing unconventional, unpopular or even dissenting opinions. This, said Shih, helps catch leaders from going off the road when they're making the wrong decision.

Lesson 4 – Build unity. NASA is working to unify its entire workforce around its mission to return to the moon by 2024. If everyone is focused on that mission, they're much more likely to come together and work toward it as a team.

Lesson 5 – Keep things in perspective. Leaders must elevate and broaden their people's perspectives beyond self-interest and self-agendas. Then, bring people together to connect. This ultimately breaks down barriers, builds trust and enhances the teamwork, collaboration, coordination and harmony of the workforce, said Shih.

For more unexpected lessons and business advice, check out these other videos in our series:

5 Business Lessons Learned from an NFL Referee

5 Business Lessons Learned from a Paleontologist

CO— aims to bring you inspiration from leading respected experts. However, before making any business decision, you should consult a professional who can advise you based on your individual situation.

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Published January 28, 2020