How To Solve the Biggest Problem with Diversity

There was an item on the local news the other night that I found fascinating. A number of students at the university campus were holding a rally advocating for a Diversity Center as a gathering place that would acknowledge the diversity of the campus and provide a place and programs that would focus on that aspect of their identity.  Given the cash-strapped condition of higher education, my immediate thought was “re-inaugurate the Student Union as the Student Diversity Center and you’re done!”

As I let this information further settle, I began to wonder about the surface focus that our culture has taken in the intervening years between the concepts of Student Union and Student Diversity, what that says about our culture, and the dangers and opportunities this presents, both for our culture, and then, turning the thought on its side, for business.  Yeah, I have an exciting thought life….

The challenge is to approach these areas with “Both/And” thinking (here’s a good post by Thomas Ambler that describes this in a business context).  Diversity brings a wide and deep richness to innovation, teams, culture and creativity. Without diversity, sameness rules…to one way of thinking. Union brings strength, vision, singular purpose and a commonality or community that can bring dreams to fruition. We need both.

Focusing on just one or the other has its dangers. Complete union can crush any “other” thinking (“groupthink”), devalue (or even attack…) differences than actually enhance, and enshrine stagnation. Utter diversity has no real “direction”, scatters strength, and can set up innumerable islands of “mine” that may feel satisfying to the single inhabitant, but little else. Like I said, we need both.

I feel that acknowledging our need for each other as humans helps move us to an initial union of a sort. Recognizing the unique strengths and weaknesses we each bring to a relationship or group emphasizes the diversity. This is much harder work than categorizing groups (and ideologies…) with stereotypes. Cognitively, it’s much easier to paint a type onto someone than it is to invest social effort. But if we want to really make this work, we have to do the work.

So what does this construct look like when viewed through a business prism? Not much different, actually. Numerous studies have shown the value of ensuring your team has a heterogeneous make-up (see a short list of articles at the end of this post). There are a number values to look at, too. So many times, when we hear the word “diversity” we think race or gender. However, you might consider:
  • Age
  • Personality Type
  • Cultural origin
  • Regional or Geographic origin
  • Educational focus (that is, arts, sciences, business, etc.)
  • Work and professional history
  • External focus or activities (what does this person do outside of the office?)
Next, think on how you segment and perceive of your customers and audience. How do you reach out them? Different people look for information and learn in different ways. This isn’t to say you have to do everything to reach everyone. You do need to be more intentional and thoughtful when doing this kind of research, though. Assumptions made in this area will have a direct impact on your business, so the better and more true view you have of these people, the more likely you are to actually reach them and succeed in your efforts.

Hold both Diversity and Union in your view and you will have a clearer idea of what Actual Humans are. You can be more authentic.

Here’s a short list of Diversity studies for business:

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