By Bill Say, M.A.
The “business case” for diversity may never be proven. One reason is that
working through substantial differences of any kind is simply hard work and therefore tempting to avoid. However, such breakthrough work changes everything when we do so.
Think about any relationship where you’ve had a significant difference or conflict. Maybe you hurt someone or were hurt, had stylistic differences that drove each of you crazy, or you just couldn’t see eye to eye. What did you do? Did you simply “agree to disagree?” Did you separate from the relationship? If you proceeded without resolution you probably noted some worsening or diminishment of the connection. Or perhaps you worked through enough of your differences to have reached a deeper understanding and possibly even an enrichment of the relationship. In any case you probably noted that it was hard work. It likely took more than a single conversation. And it may have required you to stick your neck out, speak up as well as really listen.
As you probably know, there is a significant shift in businesses and organizations with regard to diversity. There has been and still exists the “social justice” reason for undertaking diversity, which aims for more equality and better access to opportunities within welcoming work environments. More recently, many organizations are undertaking diversity initiatives because they promise better business: “the business case!” A more diverse workforce has the potential to better understand and attract a diverse consumer base; have more varied skills, thinking and perspectives on hand; and be adaptable to changing situations. These are compelling reasons why any organization would want to promote diversity. Yet, why do so many groups give lip service to diversity and not take the steps needed to implement deeper change?
One of the “best practices” with regard to successful diversity initiatives is buy-in from all levels of the organization and especially from its top executives. If the company’s leaders don’t really believe in diversity and its implications for success, sustainability and well-being, how can they hang in when other issues are pressing? Or when the labors of diversity work aren’t clearly paying off?
This brings me back to the relationship conflicts and differences we all face.
When other matters are pressing, it’s easy to sweep these disturbances under the rug. We often look the other way even while the basic relationship might be suffering. Part of my view here is informed by being a couples therapist as well as an organizational consultant. Many couples only pick up the phone when their “pain point” has finally reached the threshold where they are willing to address the issue.
Who taught us to deal with conflicts and differences? Where did we learn how to really listen? How did we learn to deeply represent and express ourselves? Did someone teach us how to truly “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes”? I know that no one taught me these lessons until I was well along as an adult, and I find the learning curve both steep and ongoing.
Diversity is about differences. Sometimes those differences are a delight. Remember the beginnings of a romantic relationship when nearly every aspect of your new friend was an exciting discovery! But sometimes dealing with our human differences is daunting. Reading the main section of the newspaper on any day shows us the challenges in our world regarding differences. But we usually need not look any further than our own social or work spheres to see our own difficulties. Maybe we work within a team fraught with tension or have a supervisor or supervisee we simply can’t stand. Perhaps we’re in an organization that is ideologically split and unable to move forward. With these kinds of problems, sure, it’s easier to turn to other, lower hanging, manageable and promising fruit.
To me, seeing is believing in diversity. We need to have enough of an experience that differences matter and that working with and through differences is worth it.
Again, who hasn’t been challenged by our human diversity, whether it has involved variations in generation, race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, socio-economics, or political view? Then, if we add all our different styles of looking at things, doing things and relating, we will probably see that diversity is all around us! Coming back to our successes and failures with hashing out differences, what have been the benefits and the costs? Please take a moment now and bring to mind a time when you worked through an important difference with someone. How did you do it? What did you contribute? What did your partner contribute? What was the effect or benefit? In what way was this experience “diversity work?”
If you feel inspired by this memory, you might consider a current difference or conflict with someone in your team or organization. What is the nature of your conflict or difference? If you spoke your mind fully, what would you say? What would your partner say? If you’re at an impasse, imagine getting into your partner’s “shoes” and seeing things from that point of view. We often resist such an empathetic act but if we’re truly interested in understanding things from another point of view, taking the other’s side is a powerful way to do so. Imagine being that person and take a walk; walk a mile in that person’s shoes. The folk wisdom that suggests that we “walk a mile in someone’s shoes” doesn’t say “take two steps;” it says “walk a mile” for a reason. It often takes that long before we can shrug off our own onesided state of mind. Go ahead and try it.
Here, I think we need to look at our “bottom line” in relationships and business when it comes to differences. I know that I often falter when it comes to conflict and differences. Some situations I simply let die. Others I address more strenuously. When I review some of my biggest successes in life, I know that I consider reconciling differences within an important relationship to be one of my peak achievements.
How important are differences to you? Do they tend to enhance your life? Or do they simply complicate matters? When differences become a point of conflict, how invested are you in learning from these differences and taking steps to resolve them? Clarifying your basic attitude with differences may highlight your “bottom line” with relationships, teams, business and life itself.
If you do indeed value differences, then maybe this is the time to seize them more fully within yourself, and in your relationships, teams and organization. Remember those transformative moments when resolving a difference changed everything! Most likely, your group needs your leadership, inspiration and belief to make diversity a reality.