Winning with Diversity: Lessons from the Field

Diversity refers to the broad mix of people currently or soon to be a part of your organization. It exists whenever you encounter anyone who has a view of the world, or “paradigm,” different from your own.

Managing Diversity is a deliberate effort to create a work environment that allows these differences to contribute equally to the common goals of the organization.

Managing Diversity has emerged as a key strategic issue for the ’90s. Unfortunately, for some, it has also emerged as the latest new management fad. As such, there has been a lot of talk recently about the value of Diversity Training. After all, several companies took a pioneering approach to Diversity and were among the first to “do something” to address the issue. Typically, the something they tended to latch onto was diversity awareness training. In fact, these companies are now in their second or third year of awareness training on diversity.

Diversity training is certainly a necessary part of any Diversity initiative, but it is not the only part. How often have you attended a really outstanding training session and have been really turned on by the experience, only to return to the workplace and face the same mess you left. What usually happens is, the glow of the training experience, quickly fades as you face the reality of your work environment. There has to be more.

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Recently, many organizations have begun to recognize the value of implementing diversity as a business strategy. Many large corporations (The Prudential Insurance Company, Hewlett-Packard, Alabama Gas Corporation), governmental agencies (Department of Transportation, U.S. Postal Service) and professional associations (bankers, insurance industry, utility executives) are beginning to understand how diversity affects their mission. In fact, many large non-profit organizations (United Way, Girl Scouts, Habitat for Humanity) have also adopted a diversity strategy as part of their plan for success.

Why is diversity on the agenda of so many organizations? Because things have changed. The people served by these organizations have changed. The people working for them have changed. The emerging leadership of these organizations has changed. Not only are they more diverse physically, mentally, and by background, but their values differ greatly. The challenge of the ’90s and beyond has become how to manage diversity so that we continue to get world class results from a team of people with different expectations. The opportunity is simple: if we learn to do it well, we not only survive, we succeed.

A strategic approach to issues of diversity involves such things as executive attention; assessing the attitude, culture, success criteria, and expectations of the organization; establishing a Diversity Action Council to help the organization through the change process, reviewing and changing the policies, practices, rules, rewards; and, training for awareness, management skills, and career development.

Thinking of diversity as a strategic asset allows you to approach it boldly and systematically. A strategic approach means we can safely challenge the existing paradigm of the organization and introduce new thinking about people. Understanding diversity as a strategy means recognizing the “intent” as well as the “content” of the process.

Managing Diversity as a Discipline has only been around for five or so years. We have just begun to learn how to overcome the fear and reluctance to address the issue. In the process, a few things have become clear:

  1. It is important to define diversity to include all differences. If you limit the definition to visible difference, for instance, you could overlook opportunities to benefit from a diversity strategy. For example, some organizations, who serve and are comprised of mostly women (or people of color, or the differently-abled, etc.), may begin to think that their “majority minority” makeup means that effective management of diversity is achieved. As long as there are two or more people of any type working together, the principles of Managing Diversity represent an opportunity for increased productivity, improved relationships, and more fun.
  2. When training is the first and only thing done, people have no context for wanting to appreciate difference. They naturally wonder, “Why are we doing this?” “Why was I invited?” “Have I done something wrong?” Even after the training, you may hear things like “More white-male bashing,” or, “Sounds like the same old stuff (preferential programs) with a new label.”These concerns can be overcome by introducing diversity as a strategic initiative, explaining why it makes sense and demonstrating how it supports business goals. Integrating diversity into all human resource strategies such as mentoring or succession planning programs can send a loud signal that the Company “means business.”
  3. An organization must be in a state of “readiness” to effectively implement a diversity strategy. Readiness includes having a top leader, that is, the CEO or Executive Director, who is both committed and vocal. Other key players (both formal and informal leaders) must be well-educated about the strategic significance of diversity as a business issue. Otherwise conscious or even unconscious sabotage is almost predictable. When people raise questions about the process or refuse to allow themselves or their associates to participate, the leaders must be prepared to answer concerns and objections appropriately and quickly.
  4. When offered an opportunity, people genuinely want to know more about “treating others like they want to be treated.” People in all types of jobs have proven capable and willing to deal with diversity as a business asset.
  5. The three biggest barriers to effectively managing diversity are: #3) stereotypes (beliefs about a group applied to an individual), #2) ethnocentrism (belief that my way is the only right way), and #1) poor management skills, (inability to recognize, appreciate, and capitalize on individual differences).
  6. Organizations who choose to work with a consultant often have a difficult time determining who to hire. It is important to choose wisely. The choice is made with more confidence when an organization is clear that Managing Diversity is a part of their strategic mix and not just a quick-fix program. Then they look for compatibility, approach, philosophy, experience in their industry, style and chemistry.

Managing diversity is a journey of continuous discovery about people and the value they bring to organizations and to society.

Diversity is a reality, not a problem. The success of any organization will depend on how well you manage that reality. Those organizations that make Managing Diversity a part of their business strategy will WIN.