The conversation on the topic of diversity is often a difficult one. Different people have entirely different views and responses to it. For some people, it creates awkward interactions. For others, it may create anger, resistance or even confusion.
Despite the real (or perceived) glass ceilings and relational minefields, effective leaders see the value in diversity. They view it as a key tool in building world-class, high performing teams. These leaders understand that diverse professionals can provide the company with an uncommon advantage when properly led, inspired and encouraged.
Some of the world’s best leaders instinctively understand that power of diversity while others seem less comfortable embracing it. The real question is…why? Why do some leaders seem uncomfortable and even scared to discuss, support, and lead with a mindset of diversity?
Fear of the Unknown
Growing up, I was fortunate enough to attend a local private school less than 4 blocks from our home in suburban Detroit. My parents sacrificed greatly in order to pay the hefty tuition and required uniform cost for my bother and I to attend.
Although grade school and middle school generated many lifelong friends, it also clouded my understanding and appreciation for diversity. For 8 years, all the boys and girls looked just about the same and came from very similar backgrounds.
Many of us were first-generation immigrants. We looked the same, wore the same required school uniforms, and even spoke the same. Diversity to the younger version of me really came down to one question – what color tie was I going to wear with my white shirt and blue dress pants?
My world began to change when I attended 9th grade in the local public school. I begin to meet people from different cultures, ethnicities, and economic backgrounds. Even with this limited exposure, I was nowhere near ready to understand the true diversity I experienced during my first year of college.
I quickly realized that people who didn’t look like me, dress like me, or speak like me could produce exceptional results if we united for a common cause. At the same time, the question kept coming up – why does it seem like there are so many barriers to diversity?
Based on my own experience and observations of more than 25 years in the business of people, the following are the five barriers that I believe get in the way of most organizations and leaders.
Fear of Asking Questions
Several years ago when my daughter was a senior in high school, our home served as the gathering and staging location on prom day for her and her girlfriends. After all the girls had their makeup and dresses on, we moved outside to take pictures of the group before their dates showed up to whisk them away to dinner and the dance.
As the designated photographer (and proud father!), I took many more pictures than were probably needed in order to capture the occasion in all its glory. Later that evening as I was reviewing the pictures, I noticed something very interesting in the pictures we had taken. My daughter and her group of friends looked more different than alike!
Intrigued, I showed the pictures to my daughter the next morning and asked her if she noticed anything interesting about the photographs. After a minute or two of reflection, she pointed to hair! She thought that was the most interesting fact of the picture!
As I pointed out my observation, she wasn’t the least bit shocked. However, she did make an interesting comment. My daughter stated this group of young ladies coming from different ethnic, racial and economic backgrounds, took the time to ask each other a key question – why?
Questions like “Why does your family do that?” or “Why do you believe that?” were commonplace. My daughter went on to explain that this entire group were very open about their differences but weren’t afraid to ask the question “why” to better understand each other’s perspective – even if their ideals didn’t align.
In today’s day, and especially in the business world, it seems that as leaders we could learn from this group of ladies. We need to spend more time asking “why” and less time making assumptions!
Fear of Conflict
When people in any organization with different experiences and viewpoints focus on achieving a common objective, the results can be extraordinary! At the same time, these different opinions cause conflict if those involved do not set aside their own personal agendas and preferences.
People usually join a team with different experiences, personalities, drives, and expectations. Sometimes these differences can be intensified when a new member joins the team, causing friction. At the intersection of differing opinions is conflict, however, there is a big difference between healthy and unhealthy conflict.
In a healthy conflict, the participants…
- Strive to understand
- Thoughtfully consider other opinions
- Work toward resolutions together
In an unhealthy conflict, the participants…
- Strive to challenge others
- Defend their opinions and attack others
- Work to retaliate against others
When I was in private school, I didn’t try to isolate myself from those that were different than me – we just didn’t have anyone that was different! When I got to high school and then college, I quickly realized that I had a level of passive prejudice against those that were different than me. I had a major blind spot in my view of others who had different backgrounds and viewpoints.
Before I could truly embrace diversity, I had to admit there was a level of prejudice that had clouded my view of people and the world around me. It was only then that I could embrace and see the value of different experiences, gifts, and perspectives team members brought to the table.
As an individual and especially as a leader, do you need to re-examine your conscious or unconscious prejudices? My perspective has changed. Has yours?
As a young leader, I was so confident in my own genius that I could not imagine other people adding value to my work. There was no conceivable way that others with less experience than I, or completely different than I, could contribute to my organization and my clients.
At that point in my career, I had achieved a certain level of success and arrogantly looked down on others from my perch in my big corner office. I didn’t appreciate others, especially those that were different from me.
We need to realize that true leadership is not about titles, positions, and protecting our span of control. Leadership is about providing value to others and appreciating the contributions everyone on the team brings to the office each day. If you dismiss the ideas and perspectives of others, especially by those different from you, you will never reach your potential, and neither will your team!
Focusing on Diversity without Real Inclusion
My wife shared with me that when baking a cake, you need to consider more than the right ingredients. You need to combine the ingredients correctly so they can all perform their function. Similarly, focusing on diversity without inclusion is like have the right ingredients for the cake, but not considering the role of each ingredient when combining them!
When people on my team or yours don’t feel like they belong or can contribute to the goal, they disconnect. When people disconnect, effort decreases and the overall performance of the team and the company decreases.
There are two very different perspectives when it comes to diversity and inclusion. Some define inclusion as a function of morality – it’s the right thing to do. In this case, inclusion is defined in terms of representation and ensuring fair inclusion of race, gender, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, etc. Many with this view inclusion from a lens of compliance, ethics, and equality.
Others see diversity and inclusion as having intrinsic value. They place value on those that have a tangible and beneficial impact on the business. The goal is not just bringing people together from different races, religious views, and genders, but including those with different backgrounds, personal experiences, styles, and perspectives.
This latter group isn’t happy just bring people to the table. They want everyone at the table to be seen as a contributor – and don’t see it as inclusion until leaders empower that to happen.
Good leadership encourages inclusion and results in fully engaged teams. Not only do these leaders understand the necessary ingredients, but they also provide an environment where employees can see the impact of their work and understand the value they bring to the organization.