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November 11, 2009

Diversity Dunce

Blog cartoon 11-11-09

[Cartoon courtesy of Grantland Cartoons]

If you don’t know the definition of something, does that mean you can’t do it? At first, I guess, you’d have to say it would be impossible to do anything you aren’t sure how to define, but on second thought, maybe it’s not so unreasonable your employees could pull off something whose definition they don’t know. That’s the dilemma of implementing a diversity initiative. How much of the meaning of “diversity” is intuitive, and how much of it has to be concretely defined for your organization?

My definition of corporate diversity is an organization with employees and management that don’t look like they all come from the same intra-married backwoods village. Hopefully they don’t look like any kind of backwoods village, but at least they shouldn’t look like one with so much intra-marriage they can’t think straight. It means there are people of different races and ethnic groups, but also of different socio-economic backgrounds. It’s no feat to have a “diverse” company if they’re all from Ivy League schools, or all from “nice” neighborhoods. That kind of homogeneity of backgrounds would result in stale and exclusionary ideas, right? 

Sometimes I think the “corporate culture” movement of establishing Such-and-Such Company Standards has a detrimental effect on diversity because it encourages a culture in which people may be of different races and ethnic groups, but they all have the same ideas and approach to life. Let’s say one employee would like to decorate her cubicle with inflatable green turtles, some of which pop up over the cubicle wall, and another employee enjoys a spare and clean cubicle with nothing but an unflattering picture of his wife and embarrassing baby picture of himself?  Is such variance OK?  Or is it detrimental to establishing a consistent corporate culture?  It’s detrimental to creating a consistency of culture, yet it’s diverse. Those two employees most likely won’t have the same ideas or approach to getting your company’s business done, and that probably would be to the benefit of your company. After all, if you want the greatest chance for success, it’s best to spread out your approaches and resources, like those people who buy 500 lottery tickets instead of just one to increase their chances of winning. Hopefully your company’s chances of success aren’t as much of a shot in the dark as attaining a winning lottery ticket, but it’s a statistical truth that the more of a thing you put into whatever you’re trying to win, the greater your chances. So, what does it say about your company’s chances for success if your employees all promote the same culture, and by extension, the same ideas?

The worker of the green turtles and the worker of the ugly pictures would still have different ideas regardless of whether they were allowed to decorate their cubicles as they wished, but I think the green turtles lady would be hesitant to bring her ideas forth if the corporate culture made a point of celebrating work approaches epitomized by the ugly pictures man. Is the “consistency” of your corporate culture, and the homogeneity it’s promoting in spite of your touted “diversity” initiative, silencing those with new ideas that could help propel your next blockbuster innovation?

How many of your workers have the same definition of diversity as me?  I guess most just think of “diversity” means hiring and promoting people of different races and cultures. If your company does happen to have a truly diverse mindset, however, no definition is necessary because it’s been internalized by your employees and managers to the point that it’s an instinct or reflex to be open-minded. Individuals in that kind of enlightened company don’t need to be reminded to value people of other races or ethnic groups because they’re always looking for and excited by new ideas—and the place you get new ideas, they would have learned from being open-minded, is by interacting with people who have different life experiences from their own.

If you define diversity, do you risk limiting it? Once you define it, after all, it doesn’t mean anything beyond whatever you’ve said it means, and that, ironically enough, is just the opposite of true diversity. True diversity has an infinitely wide scope of people, ideas, and work approaches. Do you agree with that, or do you think the definition of diversity has to be limited or have parameters set around it?

Companies seem afraid of free-for-alls, and I’m not sure why. What if employees came in at all different times of the day, wearing all different types of outfits, and doing their work in all different types of ways? Assuming ethics or laws aren’t breached, shouldn’t you judge them according to outcomes rather than methodologies?  You could always give up your stifling “corporate culture” rules for six months, as an innovation test, and see what happens. If it’s a disaster, you could just go back to the old corporate culture ways, right?  Or would it be too late because Corporate Pandora’s Box will have been opened?

So much to consider when it comes to diversity. But that’s the way it should be. If there weren’t so much to think about (and define?), it would just be your most uninspiring employee’s most uninspired idea repeated like a programmed robot.

 

Does your company define diversity for employees, or do you think they intuitively know what it means?  What role, if any, does your “corporate culture” play in promoting diversity?

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Comments

Fred Nickols

When I saw this question I chuckled because about 15 years ago my then CEO launched a corporate renewal program, one area of which was "diversity." In the meeting where this was announced, I raised my hand and asked, "What do you mean by 'diversity'?" The CEO exploded, declaring that everyone knew what diversity was. To this day, I'm still not sure what it is or what the CEO meant by it.

ed bernacki

Re Definitions of Diversity
Much of our current thinking defines diversity through our “eyes”. It is colour and look of people around a table. Imagine if we were blind. What would diversity “look” like?
Perhaps we will someday also include the way people think as a type of cognitive diversity. After all, if we have a perfectly balanced group (defined by race, orientation, gender, handicap, and whatever other category you can name) who all think alike, do you have diversity?

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For any folks invested in more and better resident contribution, that is a knock back, i believe. But strangely enough, the newest one-pager Can involve many responsibilities around consultation.

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