“Diversity is the one true thing we all have in common...”
Anonymous These days, when someone mentions the word diversity we tend to think along racial or cultural lines, but if we’re looking for differences between people, there are a million ways to make distinctions: Gender, race, language, colour, ability, class, experience, personality, location, religion, country, team, strengths and education are just some of the more common distinctions we perceive in society. You wouldn’t have to dig very deep to find vast differences even between identical twins. Diversity literally means: ‘a range of different things’ and as such contributes to the level of complexity in our work environments.
Diversity is everywhere
Our work environment is characterised by extreme complexity. There is such a huge diversity of ideas, perspectives, technologies, markets, and people. Everywhere you look you will see connections and conflicts. Diversity is everywhere! The resulting tension gets a bad wrap sometimes, but it is not always a bad thing. “Good” tension produces new ideas, new products, new processes. Good tension acts like fine-grit sandpaper, refining and polishing rough ideas into a gleaming finished product. Tension is only a problem when it interferes with your ability to achieve organisational objectives. (R. Roosevelt Thomas, 1996)
So if diversity is inevitable, what are the different ways to respond to it?
In his book: ‘Redefining Diversity’, R. Roosevelt Thomas describes what he calls his Diversity Paradigm, which describes eight possible courses of action you can take in order to manage diversity. None of these options are inherently good or bad and they can be used in combination. Your choice of action is heavily reliant on your mindset and inclinations as well as the external realities your team or organisation might be faced with. When you perceive tensions as being either too high or too low to be conducive to business results, you can refer to these eight strategies to guide your actions:
Include / exclude
Increasing or decreasing the variety in a group. If the goal of a team is to come up with an innovative solution to a problem, you will need a diverse group. On the other-hand if you need to get something done quickly, with little resistance, you could decide to homogenise the group.
Explain away existing diversity. In some cases, denying the existence of diversity buys you time in order to deal with the issue effectively. The team might not be ready to deal with a certain issue, so it serves not to highlight the issue until the time is right.
Expecting minorities to conform to the norms of the dominant group. This happens in all organisations to some degree. New employees are expected to assimilate to the culture and values of the organisation. The problem comes in when established values and processes no longer deliver the same results.
Differences are acknowledged but greatly discouraged for the good of the organisation. Suppression occurs when an old-timer tells his younger colleague to stop whining and pay his dues like he did. A highly bureaucratic culture might suppress new ideas that conflict with the ways in which things have always been done.
Include people without changing culture or systems, by ‘setting them aside’. Isolate ideas, by calling them: pilot projects; Isolate functional groups into “silos”; Re-locating certain departments to new office spaces are all examples of isolation.
Live and let live. I won’t bother you if you don’t bother me. Not all people get along equally well, but they have to get the job done. So they tolerate each other.
Accentuate similarities over differences. The belief is that good relationships can overcome differences. Team building sessions; Management rotations and Sensitivity training are all examples of this kind of reasoning.
Foster mutual adaptation
Parties accept and understand differences – recognising the potential need for all parties to adapt The idea is that changes are not to be enforced for the benefit of those who are different, but for the sake of the larger organisation. The ability to dispassionately identify the true needs of the greater entity is key.
Of these eight options, only one unequivocally endorses diversity. The other seven seek to minimise or eliminate diversity and complexity. That one option is foster mutual adaptation, and it is so new, we are not yet very familiar with it. (R. Roosevelt Thomas, 1996) As of this writing, 17 years have passed since the publication of “Redefining Diversity”. Fostering mutual adaptation is no-longer a new idea, yet I wonder if it is a reality.
R. Roosevelt Thomas, J. (1996). Redefining Diversity. AMACOM. Photo