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Laura Liswood

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Has Diversity Lived Up to Its Promise?

Posted: 11/29/11 02:03 PM ET

Diversity and inclusion are instrumental for any organization that seeks innovation, creativity, and engaged employees. We don't need to make the business case for it; it is well accepted that a diverse workforce is essential to staying competitive in the global marketplace. In today's world, problems are complex, communication is global, and the environment is constantly changing. Diversity is no longer a luxury; it is a necessity.

The real question is, "Are we actually reaping the benefits of our diversity efforts?" By the benefits, I mean the advantage of capturing the differing ways people think about issues and experiences and creation of a truly level playing field. Without an even playing field, a real meritocracy that neither subtly advantages some nor disadvantages others, it is my opinion that organizations will never obtain the benefits they seek from their diversity initiatives.

A precondition to obtaining the advantage of diversity is skilled and aware leadership. Awareness means understanding that we all bring our unconscious self to the workplace. And if there is diversity, even a limited amount, that unconscious is the true gatekeeper preventing our ability to unlock the benefits of diversity within an organization.

Our unconscious perspectives, roles, associations, preferences, and archetypes are with us constantly, and we have learned them in a slow and subtle way. So slow and subtle in fact, we are not aware of what has happened to our world view.

Who teaches us about ourselves? Our hidden teachers include our parents, school teachers, peers, religion, the media, our daily experiences and the very myths, fairy tales and fables that were read to us at bedtime. Each whispers silently in our ear about what we 'know' about others and what we deem right and wrong.

In my book, The Loudest Duck (Wiley & Sons, 2010), I reference the old lessons that we learn from our 'hidden teachers' and how these lessons continue to have repercussions and legacies in the workplace. Many Americans, particularly boys, are taught that 'the squeaky wheel gets the grease' which means speak up and you get what you want. The Japanese may be taught that 'the nail that sticks out gets hit on the head' which is completely opposite in its intent. Women around the world hear 'if you can't say anything nice don't say anything at all' and the Chinese are engrained to know that 'the loudest duck gets shot'. The last three are completely and diametrically opposite from the first aphorism, and each is brought to the table in a diverse workforce.

Unfortunately for our diversity efforts in the example above, only one group is easily comfortable raising their hand, speaking out, getting seen as having the knowledge, facts and ideas. The wheel gets the advantage; the nail, duck, and nice are at a disadvantage and the organization doesn't learn much about the ideas of the latter groups.

Obviously, diversity is needed, but so are the tools that unlock that diversity. Let me give you an example. All of us have been on conference calls. You hear the manager of the call say "Anyone out there have any comments?" Most of the time all you get is silence (or clicking of computer keys). What happened to all that cognitive diversity we wanted? We hear mainly from the people who are in the room with the manager. No one else speaks and all of those good ideas, fresh perspectives, and differing global awareness are gone. An easy solution would be to let people on the call know they will be called on and then by name, ask them for their comments. This is not rocket science, but it does require a far greater consciousness about who gets heard and how to ensure that all are included. How we unconsciously react to diversity is the key step that often gets skipped.

Most organizations have realized the business case for diversity and have made good faith attempts to hire people who reflect that business case. But once we get the diversity, we have not yet learned how to create an organization that fully obtains the benefits of it. Often this can be diagnosed by looking at the hierarchy and the numbers of individuals at various levels. In many companies today, it is not an intake problem, it is an upgrade problem. We get people in the door at the lower levels in the pyramid but they do not make it to the top. The heterogeneity gives way to homogeneity. Why? My belief is that we need to move now to Diversity 2.0 and give managers and leaders the training, awareness, skill sets, tools that ensure we engage and capture the full benefit of the diversity we say we are so committed to.

 

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