Increasing Workplace Diversity is a Reality
Ask almost any workgroup to identify disruptive changes likely to take place in their future, and they’re sure to include diversity and the demographic shifts occurring across the world.
Fact: Countries, workplaces and market places are becoming more diverse. This trend will continue and represents either a stumbling block or an opportunity for organizations.
Associated Challenges Are Also Too Real
People don’t always see eye to eye. Our differing perceptions, inbuilt stereotyping, prejudices and bias-filters influence how we relate to others from different cultures, ethnicities, religions, belief systems, social classes, genders, sexual preferences, ages, personalities, education levels, language, lifestyles, thinking styles, temporal orientations, physical and mental abilities …
Recent mass migrations of displaced peoples, campaigns such as ‘Black Lives Matter’, and the imposition of racial quotas (as is the case in South Africa) have led to an enormous resentment, fear and hostility. Harnessing diversity positively is a big challenge for organizations.
On 26th August, 2016 in Cape Town, former President F.W. de Klerk’s Foundation launched the Centre for Unity in Diversity. Sadly, in this land of Ubuntu a motivation was: “The main challenge to peace in the new millennium is the inability of cultural, language and religious communities to coexist peacefully within the same countries.” The hope heralded by Nelson Mandela, and the opportunity for South Africa to demonstrate this to the World, has been squandered by subsequent leadership. That is where an inability to coexist peacefully is being fueled in South Africa. (Not at grassroots level). And the inability to co-exist seems to be an issue in many countries, and therefore workplaces.
But There Are Positive Possibilities and Opportunities?
Psychology professor Richard Crisp has examined how positive creativity and progress may result from culture ‘clashes’, and how a protective, aggressive response to a threat from an outside group can be beneficially substituted by non-dual coalition thinking, positive perceptions and attitudes that stimulate forward movement beyond mere tolerance.1
Social scientist Andre Laurant, Emeritus Professor of Organizational Behavior at INSEAD, discovered a fascinating phenomenon. In brief: the best teams rely on the difference and uniqueness of their members to create something better than can be produced by a mono-cultural (conforming) team. But people who fear difference and put their energy into seeing differences negatively, produce little of note, and perform worst – this applies at national, regional, organization and small group levels. The most diverse teams, when they harness the richness of their diversities, become the best performing teams.2
Positive leadership role models are emerging. The new Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, was elected earlier this year. He is Muslim and a role model for all ethnic groups, religions, cultures. Anyone who has heard or observed his reasoned yet humble, gentle yet firm, ambitious yet patient approach, and his heart for inter-community relations, should be impressed. For me Khan embodies the exhortation we have from Gandhi (born into a privileged Hindu caste, known for employing non-violent civil disobedience, and who majored on building friendly and peaceful relations between ethnic groups and religions): “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” This is the starting point for all leaders in all situations.
Moving the Organization Forward
So what can organizations do to move forward?
We can raise awareness and encourage the sharing of exchanges and stories within groups where there are diversity challenges. One way of doing this is to read a book and then discuss it in teams. I often recommend Black Like Me by Texan journalist John Howard Griffin. A white man, Griffin darkened his skin to assume the identity of a black man, spent six weeks hitchhiking and traveling on Greyhound buses through the ‘deep south’, and relates his experiences.3 Another suggestion is to watch and discuss Jane Elliott’s video-taped diversity experiment, started with grade school children in her native Iowa. Immediately after the death of Martin Luther King she split her class into ‘blue-eyed’ and ‘brown-eyed’, gave and withheld privileges, treated one group as superior. In an amazingly short space of time she created a ‘racial’ divide, observed how the learning performance of the ‘inferior’ group declined significantly. When the groups were switched, the same result occurred!4 Whenever I’ve used this sort of exercise in workshops, their effect has been profound.
It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences. ~Audre Lorde
We can facilitate a session where people are asked to step into the moccasins of the other. “Successful collaboration between stakeholders starts with what social psychologists call perspective taking: the ability to see the world through someone else’s eyes.”5 Get people to share the unique and positive aspects of the other after spending time together, sharing experiences (for example, a labyrinth walk, visiting each other’s homes or places of worship) and conversations. Then as a next step, they act as advocates for the other – a sure way of breaking down differences. This is known as counter-attitudinal-advocacy.6
I’m not at all in favour of forced compliance, as in the South African job quota system. However, one good thing about their so-called Employment Equity Act is that it calls upon organisations to both (A) report compliance progress AND (B) train and consult with their employees to ensure understanding and support. I like the means, not the end, and the in-house exercises suggested above are aimed at involving employees fully – diversity from the inside out.
Now is the time to get rid of ‘we and them’ attitudes within and outside of our organisations. Instead of walls and barriers a more appropriate metaphor for our times is that of a bridge.
Here is a good perspective: Love Has No Labels | Diversity & Inclusion | Ad Council
Reap the Rewards of Getting It Right In Your Workplace
Rumi the Sufi poet told the ancient story of an elephant and six blind men.
Each man felt a different part. To one a leg was assumed to be a pillar, the tail felt like rope, and ears like a huge fan. Yet another thought the elephant’s trunk was a branch of a tree … Each one was right in their own way but only by putting their different views together could the complete picture be seen.
Teams that share a common purpose and supporting values, blended competencies, are inclusive and take responsibility for contributing their individual skills to the greater cause — are on their way to better decision-making and problem-solving (diversity of viewpoints), improved agility and resilience, and higher performance levels, (It also makes obvious sense for some customer-facing organisations to internally mirror their marketplace demographics more closely).
After all, as an ancient African proverb explains, “Chra chimive hachitswaa inda: a thumb working on its own is worthless. It has to work collectively with the other fingers to get strength and be able to achieve. One finger cannot pick up a grain.”7
Ubuntu means that we are human because of our connectedness to all others.
What are your thoughts? I welcome your comments and ideas below.
1. Crisp, Richard, The Social Brain: how diversity made the modern mind. Robinson 2015
2. Laurent, Andre http://www.speakers.co.uk/our-speakers/profile/andre_laurent
3. Griffin, John Howard, Black Like Me. Penguin 1962
4. Elliott, Jane, The Eye of the Storm (1970) – recording this experiment, and A Class Divided (1985) (A followed up with the original class many years later showed that the values that she had instilled, still remained).
5. Audia, Pino G. Train Your People to Take Others’ Perspectives. http://hbr.org/2012/11/train-your-people-to-take-others-perspectives/
6. Aronson E., Wilson T.D., Akert, R.M. Social Psychology (7th Ed.). Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, NJ 2010 cited in Psychological Concepts http://www.psychologyconcepts.com/counter-attitudinal-advocacy/
7. Mbigi, Lovemore & Maree, Jenny Ubuntu: The Spirit of African Transformation Management. Knowledge Resources, Randburg, 1995