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Source Manager's Journal: Managing Diversity in Organizations

Managing Diversity in Organizations
In early 1961, President Kennedy instructed his staff to begin to include African-American servicemen in presidential honor guards. This was probably one of the first conscious decisions to recognize the diversity in our society. It may also have been symbolic, and it could legitimately be labeled window dressing, but it was an important step for a nation that was accustomed to seeing only white people in positions of honor and respect.
Over the decades, diversity has become a centerpiece of our society. There is a vast literature on diversity, the meaning of which is often in the eye of the beholder. The word in certain notices has meant that I, as a white male, need not consider applying. I remember sitting in a meeting some years ago, where a woman described the evolution of diversity as kind of a sequential process in which each group gets a turn to cash in. Her conclusion: it's our turn now.
In New York City, among the world's most diverse places, liberal politicians and activists have frequently commanded us to "celebrate" diversity. On a certain level, I have always marveled that people from diverse cultures, races and religions live together in peace, even when compatriots in their homelands are killing one another, often on a massive scale.
In an organization, celebrating diversity has also seemed like a misplaced approach. It must be easier to manage anything in homogeneous countries like Japan or Norway than in diverse places where there are so many opportunities for miscommunication and misunderstanding across cultural, religious, racial and linguistic lines. ("She called me by my last name. Isn't that insulting? No, it's insulting if they call you by your first name.")
In organizations, it is a significant challenge to manage diversity and to extract the benefits that it has to offer. I believe that the most important of these benefits is that diversity – true diversity – can protect the organization from the kinds of mistakes that result from homogeneity. True diversity means that people not only look different but also bring different perspectives. That value is lost when the response is, "Oh wow, we hired a black guy, and he thinks just like us." This may be useful for brochures and marketing, but it doesn't help the organization avoid the pitfalls of various kinds of "group think."
It is useful to view diversity as a kind of insurance policy. If there is open discussion, sharing of different perspectives and healthy conflict over substantive issues, diversity becomes a powerful tool in finding the best solutions and making the best decisions. It also helps avoid the negative outcomes that are often the result of unexamined homogeneous group values.
Over the years, I have seen tendencies in homogeneous and sometimes monolithic groups that can be associated with particular values of these groups. In some cases these values are positive, but when applied in a blanket manner, they can produce blind spots and bad outcomes. A disclaimer: all of these are tendencies. There are lots of contrary examples, but they are worth describing to focus attention on the values of diversity and the perils of group think.
Let's start with an obvious one: white male-dominated organizations and cultures. In these organizations, there is often a competitive norm (hence, the frequent sports metaphors, such as "slam dunk") and a view that expressing uncertainty is a sign of weakness. In this environment, it is not acceptable to respond "I don't know" to a question; better to give a flip wrong answer than to admit that you don't have the information and become a write-off or a wimp. Certainty and over-confidence are seen as positive values in this locker-room environment. Unfortunately, they can produce wrong answers and bad outcomes, but at least nobody was in doubt. For real-life examples, see Enron, The White House, and other recent corporate calamities.
In homogeneous women's organizations, there is a different tendency. It is that over time, the individual needs of the managers and staff crowd out the organization's external goals and purposes. Various benefits and perks, such as telecommuting and flex-time, begin to dominate the life of the organization, typically at the expense of its mission and goals. And because hierarchy is often viewed as a male trait, the top managers may be reluctant to say "No" to subordinates because then it would be clear that they really are subordinates. Like women's views in the white male group, those of men in these groups are discounted, especially if they run counter to the dominant ethos. Finally, because these benefits and perks are widespread and inevitably distributed in an uneven manner, there is resentment and a growing sense of unfairness.
In African-American organizations, great value is placed on solidarity and sticking together, a logical outcome of the American experience of racism and discrimination. But there is a downside to this norm of solidarity. Let's say that Joe is a poor performer: he is often late or absent, doesn't finish his work, and what he does is typically sloppy and mistake ridden. Joe deserves to be fired. But he isn't because the job market is bad, there is discrimination, and he isn't a bad person. So Joe stays, but over time others begin to resent the double standard and begin to make downward adjustments in their own performances. In the end, Joe, the lowest common denominator, becomes the person setting the minimum standard of acceptability.
Other homogeneous organizations have different tendencies, many of which are based on a value or norm. In solidly Jewish organizations, being "smart" is a dominant value. As a result, people sit in meetings without asking a critical question because they fear being thought not smart if they ask it. In Latino organizations, there is a tendency to over-focus on presentation – often at length – at the expense of clarity, with the result that action is shortchanged.
So where should we start in trying to get beyond homogeneity to reap the benefits of true diversity? On an individual level, there are two starting points. The first is to examine our own biases and prejudices. Do I make judgments about people that are not based on performance? For example, do I have less respect for the opinions of people who speak with an accent? Do I actively listen to people from outside my group or to those whose opinions are substantially different from my own?
The second step is getting comfortable with necessary conflict. In a lot of ways, homogeneity is a device to avoid conflicts and differences. It is why it makes us so comfortable. But conflict is necessary to find best solutions, and we need to get used to being comfortable with discomfort. It is not in our interest to have everyone think in the same way.
Finally, we need to understand that managing diversity is hard work. It is easier in Japan or Norway. There are different styles and different approaches to communication. Trust and respect are key ingredients, though they have different meaning to different people. We need to be aware of the Platinum Rule: do unto others as they would have you do unto them. To get to this rule, you have to understand something about the other. How exactly do they want to be treated? If we think of a small place like the Virgin Islands as an organization, we begin to see how tough – but also how worthwhile – this is. Rather than people talking past one another, they would engage, actively listen and try to figure out what the best outcomes are. That is real diversity.
Editor's note: Dr. Frank Schneiger is the president of Human Services Management Institute, Inc., a 25-year-old management consulting firm that focuses on organizational change. Much of his current work is in the area of problems of execution and implementing rapid changes as responses to operational problems.

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