10 years ago, few people knew these words. 20 years ago, hardly anyone. In the recent past, these words have come to become prominent in organizational literature and have also become key functions in some organizations.
What gets my goat is when I hear talk about “A business case for Diversity”.
Diversity exists in nature. Look around you. There are hundreds of different types of trees, many different types of dogs, cats, snakes, human beings even. And among human beings there are various tribes, religions, cultures, nationalities, sub-cultures. The universe is fundamentally diverse.
Saying you need a business case for diversity, is like saying you need a business case for leadership.
So why has Diversity suddenly gained so much prominence?
Thanks to globalization, mobility and the internet, organizational homogeneity has come to an end. Time was (a century and half or so ago), someone opened up a business and it was staffed by locals – people who were born, lived and died in the same community where the business was based. Most towns (with the exception of global trade centers like London/Paris/NY) were largely homogenous with segragated sections for “others”. Hiring was largely based on references and family lineage. Things were by and large homogenous.
Today, any organization of a size of 100 or more people that you walk into is heterogenous. Gender, race, sexual preference, age, education are all “differentiators”. And leaders are called upon to manage increasing levels of diversity.
You will read and hear all kinds of talk about gender diversity, racial diversity, generational diversity and so on. To me it’s all crap (pardon the French), created by busy minds who have nothing more to do than to come up with divisions and sub-divisions for diversity.
Fundamentally, what the manager/leader/organization/nation needs to be able to manage is diversity of thought. If only an organization focused on respecting, appreciating and leveraging diversity of thought, we’d address diversity at a fundamental level. Organizationally and nationally.
We need to stop working on the Taxonomy of diversity and invest time and effort in building cultures of respect and inclusion. Cultures that are able to identify strengths and similarities, and then leverage them appropriately.
So as a manager who manages a diverse set of individuals in a team. What is it you can do?
1. Acknowledge that differences exist: First and foremost, accept that each individual is different and might need to be managed differently. If you have more than one child, or have had more than one sibling, you will know what I mean. As a parent or as a sibling, you would have realized that you use different styles to manage each of your children/siblings
2. Respect Similarities: A powerful realization is that no matter how different people may be, at their core, all humans have some fundamental values/desires that are the same irrespective of who they are or where they come from. Want an example or two? Sure.
a. Irrespective of where I come from, I will have a deep connection with my family and my parents. Whether I’m Indian, or Chinese, or Italian or American, when my parents are not OK, I am not OK.
b. Irrespective of gender or race, each individual fundamentally wants to be involved, wants to contribute, make a difference and wants to be acknowledged. It is these similarities that will bind diverse individuals together in spite of all differences. As a manager/leader, you need to be able to leverage this.
3. Identify the unifying factor: In all my experience, and learning from history, I have realized that the one factor that unites people, that neutralises diversity if you will, is meaning. Whenever nations have faced conflict, people have given up their differences and come together to be one. Whenever organizations have been able to find compelling meaning, people have been able to set aside differences and have worked together towards the larger objective. As a manager, if you can find ways to create meaning for your team, and connect the organizational meaning to personal meaning, then you've found the sweet spot. There is an intersection between organizational purpose and individual purpose and organizations that are able to find this intersection, that are able to communicate it often, communicate it well, and demonstrate it in practice, are able to overcome the challenges of diversity.
When JFK addressed the nation and set in place a goal to reach the moon, he united people across the country on a common emotion of pride and achievement. Gandhi rallied the nation around freedom as did Nelson Mandela – they both spoke to self-respect. Startup organizations often have a very high sense of meaning and you will find a deep connect and unity in startup teams, where the meaning is always bigger than the individual. That’s what Leadership teams need to be able to achieve as core culture!
I hope you enjoy reading this one as much as I did writing it. Would love to hear your experiences and opinions of managing diversity, especially if you've tried something that works!