Monday, April 4, 2011
Differences, Diversity, and Leadership – Part 1
When you see the word ‘diversity’ you might think of diversity as a moral imperative or a societal goal, which I believe should be a given. It should be supported by everyone - wouldn’t that make a great world? Or you might think of the ‘business case’ for diversity: a company with a diverse workforce with both genders, many generations, and ethnically and racially diverse employees has a competitive advantage and will perform better in a global marketplace than a less diverse company. Quite a few studies suggest that diverse, heterogeneous teams promote creativity, innovation and product development.
When I think of diversity, I think of two kinds of diversity. First, I think of diversity based on factors like ethnicity, gender, color, age, race, religion, national origin, and sexual orientation. Second, and certainly not less important in the workplace and in life, I think of diversity as the numerous individual differences between people and the uniqueness of each person as is expressed in one’s communication style, career choices, parenting style, conflict resolution style and other unique expressions that influence and constitute a person. All these differences make us think and act differently from one another. We approach challenges differently, we solve problems in our own unique way, we differ in our perspectives, suggestions, interactions, and decisions. I believe that an effective and healthy family, team, business, or community requires recognizing, respecting, and utilizing these differences and each person’s unique perspectives.
If you look at the dictionary you find that the word ‘different’ is acquired via Old French from Latin, meaning become or be unlike. Searching for synonyms of ‘different’ you find words like dissimilar, unlike, unequal, peculiar, distinct, divergent, other, and diverse. Diversity is what our planet is made off. Without diversity we would not survive. Whether it be plants, animals, humans, services, products, climates, political systems or any other area, diversity and differences make life possible. As we all know, however, diversity and differences between and within groups often leads to division. Differences between people and groups can follow two paths.
The first path takes you to a place where differences are being valued. They complement each other and add value, beauty, new perspectives, and strength. They lead to curiosity, to an open mind, to acceptance, and to growth due to differences. All this goes far beyond ‘tolerating’ differences, which often boils down to accepting them (sometimes only reluctantly), without actually using them, let alone benefiting from them. The real case for diversity I think implies recognizing, respecting, valuing, and using differences of all kinds. Diversity requires an open mind but probably more so self-knowledge and self-confidence – the absence of feeling threatened. This leads to the second path, where differences are seen as a threat, where they create distance and magnify all that is unlike yourself or your style and your own ways. This path can easily lead to division, putting others down, bullying, condemning, dominating, excluding, and repressing – something that is much too prevalent, and not just in countries that are seeing courageous protests in opposition of this repression.
How people deal with diversity and differences is influenced by many personal, psychological, social, political, cultural, and economical factors, but, more importantly, it’s every person’s responsibility. We should all be held accountable for how we approach diversity and how we treat people and groups that we perceive to be different from ourselves, whether it be at home, in the workplace, at school, in the store or anywhere else.