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Diversity Sucks (Please read before you schedule your demonstration!)

Now that I’ve got your attention and before you get out the pitchforks and torches––let me explain…

Leaders don’t have the luxury of avoiding difficult issues. One of the most contentious issues leaders deal with today is that of “diversity.” Even if you lead a small organization or a small group, it is likely that you’re dealing with a diverse range of people.

Now before we dive in, let’s clarify.

As I implied above, the statement “diversity sucks” is meant to get your attention. I use this as a tactic to instigate discussion in my workshops too. I’ve just found over time that it’s much easier to engage people with a provocative title or statement like “Diversity Sucks.” You usually don’t get that excited about “A Comprehensive Study of Tactics for Managing Diversity in the Workplace”–– or some such academic leaning theme.

So what, exactly, do I mean?

It’s not that diversity itself is the problem––though it can be. Rather, it’s the way we manage diversity and the way we lead a diverse group that gives us trouble.

First of all, what specific differences are we talking about under the umbrella of “diversity?”

Of course there are obvious characteristics and traits that distinguish human beings from one another. The most obvious and contentious today are race, color, ethnicity, age and biological sex.

There are also less obvious differences that need to be acknowledged, addressed and managed including regional culture, religious and philosophical beliefs, political ideology and affiliation, sexual and gender identity, personality types, intelligence, emotional intelligence and personal motivations. This is the short list! We could fill a page…

Why is this even an issue? Doesn’t diversity make us stronger?

I don’t believe so.

Feel free to argue, but let me share my reasoning.

I will acknowledge that it is a widely held belief and that many organizations spend a lot of time and resources cultivating diversity in their ranks. In many cases, diversity is mandated by policy and even by regulation and law.

Research clearly indicates that diversity in any group can produce an innovative culture where a lot of different ideas can produce a rich array of options and outcomes.

Studies also caution that diversity in any group can also lead to segregation along any of the lines we identified earlier. Sub-groups can form that isolate themselves from “others.” Various groups are susceptible to “similarity attraction.” And as researchers Mannix and Neale point out: “Self and social categorization arising from similarity attraction are aspects that tend to lead to negative outcomes from diversity in groups. In groups dominated by this behavior, homogeneous groups acting cohesively will function to achieve a better outcome than diverse groups.” (from the Center for Advancement of Scholarship on Engineering Education;

The first impression might be that the research is contradictory. But what if we take a more considered approach?

Certain diverse groups produce remarkable results. It’s also true that homogenous groups can also be extremely productive. We can find examples to support both conclusions.

I would also argue, however, that you will find diversity even in the most homogenous groups. The differences within the group just may be less obvious––most of the time.

So is it diversity that makes us stronger? I don’t think so.

Diversity certainly makes us interesting. Diversity can be powerful when we encourage a variety of thoughts and experiences to compete and merge to produce creativity and innovation.

But it is not diversity in itself that makes us stronger––it is our ability to work together despite our differences, when we’re willing, that can make us stronger.

So how do you manage these differences to encourage the inclusion of diverse ideas, skills, talents and abilities to produce the best possible outcomes with the least possible conflict?

First, identify whether any particular difference is “incidental” or “substantive.”

Let’s work through of the most difficult and contentious examples: racial diversity.

Correcting for all other variables, is a person’s race or the color of their skin “incidental” or “substantive?” That is, does a person’s race, everything else being equal, affect their ability to perform effectively on the job?

I doubt you’d argue the point that a person’s color makes any substantive difference in job performance––as I said, all other things being equal. To even harbor that thought would make you a racist by any contemporary application of that term.

However––while this difference may not be “substantive,” it may be “meaningful.” And I’m using this term quite literally…

For example, you may make a substantive case that there is absolutely no correlation between race and intelligence or race and the ability to perform a specific set of skills.

On the other hand, as a leader you may serve an individual who genuinely feels that skin color has and continues to play a role in their own personal life and career. He or she may genuinely feel that they’re being discriminated against because of race––even if you can prove they’re not.

As a leader you must acknowledge that a person’s thoughts, feelings and opinions matter––whether they’re based on substantive facts or not. These thoughts and feelings depend on a personal experiences, individual beliefs, current societal norms or trends and culture.

Whether or not you’re a culprit, on this issue this person could reasonably cite other examples to support their position. This perception is complicated even further on both sides by our susceptibility to correlation and confirmation biases. That is we tend to see facts in the context that supports our presupposed position.

To complicate matters even further, current research in psychology clearly proves that emotion is far more powerful than reason when it comes to how we make decisions, process information and interact with the world around us.

So––the color of a person’s skin may be powerfully meaningful––to them if not to you!

Diversity can make us or break us. How can we manage these differences?

Let’s review…

The first step is to identify whether the difference is incidental or substantive. Next––whether substantive or incidental, try to ascertain whether there is a deeper meaning you need to be aware of.

Now you might have the foundation for a useful dialog. Keeping it simple, it’s time to bring the various parties together to talk about these differences.

Here are some strategies to keep the conversation civil and productive: The first step is listening––not judging. Current research is clear. Despite our best efforts at times, emotion trumps reason in our decision making process, most of the time. To shift from emotional to rational response do as Stephen Covey advised: “Seek first to understand.”

Listening shows that you’re sincerely interested in finding a solution––rather than just winning a battle.

During this listening phase, gather facts. You can’t determine whether a difference is incident or substantive without facts. Facts are the foundation for substance.

Even if you’re prepared with hard data to support your initial assessment, resist the temptation to launch facts like grenades in some attempt to win the debate. Remember that emotion overwhelms reason––especially when the situation is still hot. Refuting someone’s feelings and opinions with facts too soon in the process is usually received as a challenge and is likely met with hardened resistance. Be patient.

Give all sides a chance to support their positions. This may mean a recess to allow time for each to gather facts––and you should encourage this process.

Once all the facts are in, all sides have been given an opportunity to express themselves you will be in a much better position to decide on a reasonable response.

One word of caution––I’ve already said that a factually incidental difference can still be genuinely meaningful to an individual or group. You’ve got to respect this meaning and address it accordingly.

Manage your expectations. What this process does is shine a light on the issue. Prepare yourself for all possible outcomes.

Hopefully the process inspires a resolution––which can often be a response that nobody even would have even imagined before.

The process may reveal that a particular difference is genuinely incidental and that a reasonable accommodation or adjustment is readily available.

It may show that the resolution will require more time. I believe this is a great opportunity to effect meaningful change. Agree to work on a resolution, create an environment conducive to constructive dialog and move forward.

And finally, it may also expose irreconcilable differences. There are times when all parties have to either agree to disagree and work together in spite of their differences––or agree that they simply cannot work together at all.

This challenge of managing diversity is not going away––it is growing. So…

Will our differences ultimately tear us apart?

Or––CAN diversity actually make us stronger?

That's entirely up to us!

Photo courtesy of Dawn Allynn and

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