When used to describe individuals, “diversity” takes many traits; man or woman, young or elderly, disabled or not, Caucasian or Asian, etc.. When used to talk about ideas, “diversity” expresses itself in many ways too; capitalist or socialist, democratic or autocratic, pedagogic or demagogic, progressive or conservative, etc.. The same variety of opposites and nuances can be found in other criteria as well. Ones that society uses to define where someone is different from another person. Criteria that can also help people relate to others and even bring them together; mother tongue, level of education, job title, economic status, religion, cultural background, food habits, sports or leisure practice, even sexual orientation or preferences. Yet, when put in a workplace context, “diversity” tends to be trickier. In part because there are almost as many “diversities” possible as there are possible physical, ideological or social traits. These days, at least in North America, “diversity” is all about allowing more women to work in the tech industry or sit on board of directors. A few years back, it rhymed with letting disabled people work in regular jobs. Before that, “diversity” was about equality of chances for the cultural minorities in the job market. When brought down to its core, “diversity” is more than a positive discrimination program.
How can you keep on thriving then – either as an employee or a manager – in a work environment that might feel threatening when someone different finds his/her way in?
The challenge is in knowing for what problem you need a vantage point that you don’t already have. Here’s why.
THE MOST COMMON LACK OF DIVERSITY
Every Tuesdays, Edgar, Mary and the other managers would sit in the same place as the week before. The general manager (GM) would ask everyone around the table to make a short statement about the state of the affairs in their respective departments; achievements, ongoing projects and what they were struggling with since the team last met. Quality control, training, sales, IT, HR, every manager had his/her 5 minutes. Then came maybe the most depressing part of any management team’s meeting at that company; find possible solution paths to the most pressing issues. Because all managers were in the same room and capable of bringing their own insight to the table, it should have been the most interesting and worth watching part. Even more when the GM himself was giving the go for a team’s effort; “Does anyone have an idea or suggestion to help with _______?” It wasn’t. Mainly because, as Edgar, Mary and the others learned over time, these weekly meetings weren’t about the team’s ideas and insights. It was all about the GM’s. How he thought things should be done and problems would be solved; “Here’s what we’re gonna do!” Whenever a new manager was hired, it didn’t take that many Tuesdays for him or her to understand how these meetings worked; unless an idea went along with the GM’s own vision of things, the idea and its promoter would be discredited in front of everyone. Not by the other managers. By the GM himself and his Assistant GM. Even though the new idea and its insight might have been very accurate, if tested, to solve the problem at hand. Still, as Edgar told me about his time with that company, “Does anyone have an idea or suggestion to help with _____?” usually was the signal to start doodling on the pad of paper you were asked to bring. Doodling simply up to that inevitable moment where – whatever you would say – the GM would tell you what he thought should be done – in regards to your department’s issues – and how he wanted you to do it.
Not letting any new or different ideas into a discussion – either by overconfidence or fear – is potentially damaging. As, over time, it fosters complacency and disengagement of the other people involved (in the dire discussion). More importantly, it prevents the finding of insights that can make the difference between a never-ending problem and one soon to be solved. All because of the vantage point these different ideas can actually provide.
In the GM’s case, his goal might have been to seek some cohesion and uniformity in his troops. The same with the company’s development. Yet, because he discredited all ideas and people that felt unaligned with his vision of things, these weekly meetings became a depressing experience for those attending them, like Edgar. As, in the end, sitting there wasn’t like taking part in a quest to find the best idea (for a given problem) but more like attending a “my idea vs your idea” match. Which is the most common and too often overlooked sign of a lack of diversity in a workplace.
Because an idea doesn’t perfectly align with one of yours doesn’t mean it’s incompatible. Doesn’t mean it’s invaluable neither. Even more if – either as an employee or a manager – you’re looking for a way to get farther than where your ideas and how you do things have brought you so far. To benefit from a diversity of ideas, one key move then is to simply make sure everyone understand in what direction everyone should aim their thoughts, suggestions or ideas. Opposite of asking (when not forcing) them to comply with a pre-existing set of problem solving practices and acceptable answers. The former favors focus, novelty and complementarity. Not the latter.
THE COMFORT ZONE
The “cruise control” button in cars provides many advantages to a driver. The most important being peace of mind. At least, as long as the context or conditions in which you’ve pressed the button remain the same. Unless you’re alone on a closed circuit, something will come up, change the order of things and make it necessary for you to re-engage your mind on the road, sort of speak. Car manufacturers didn’t add such button to their vehicles out of a “We have some empty space right here. Let’s fill it with a button” moment. Humans crave for things they can feel secure about, for what provides them with comfort and peace of mind. As it stirs in people the feeling of having some influence on (if not control over) their surroundings; objects, events and even people at times.
How does it translate in our social interactions – either at work or not? Out of a pool of candidates, you demonstrate a clear preference for those that went to the same college as yours. Even if they have a degree in a different program. When looking for non-job-related advices, you only consider those of people working in your profession (ex. nurse, architect, machinist, etc.) “because they can better understand my reality”. The profession criteria could easily be “same age group”, “same sports habits”, etc.. To find yourself in some sort of brotherhood/sisterhood might have its advantages when in a social context. However, to seek a single point of view isn’t necessarily the best of strategies when having a work-related problem to solve.
Going “off the beaten-path” and come across difference doesn’t have the same impact. Still, stretching yourself out of a comfort zone has its advantages. Two of them being: learning insights and getting vantage points that weren’t accessible to you (and your team) before. Things that can turn out to be very valuable. As prove this other anecdote Edgar told me about.
WITH EVERY CHANGE, THERE’S BOUND TO BE SOME RESISTANCE
The company had troubles reaching one of its client’s goals in terms of new or renewed subscriptions. Week after week, that same comment would be made during the management team’s meetings. It wasn’t an impossible product to sell but the market was shifting. Comes in a new guy, Sekounde, freshly hired. He stood out from the rest of the team in more ways than you have fingers in a hand. Among other things, he was born and raised in Africa, Muslim, highly educated (at least more than everyone else around the table, except for one). He also had a very extensive experience in sales and customer service. Both in different job positions.
In about 4 weeks in the job, he was able to figure out why the subscriptions goals weren’t met or exceeded. Something even the GM couldn’t get his head around for the past 6 to 8 months. The problem wasn’t who to call and how make the sales pitch. It was when to make the calls and what to offer someone – depending on that person’s reading habits (if talking to a potential new subscriber) or/and past subscriptions (if calling for a renewal). Such insight came to that Sekounde out of data analysis tools he had built for his former employer and simply needed to tweak a little for the present situation. As expected, the GM first discredited the situation analysis and possible solution paths that Sekounde presented to him on the 5th Tuesday. Two weeks later, after an approval for a field test with only 2 out of 20 salespersons, there was a silence around the table. In percentage, the testers sold almost the same number of subscriptions than the average number for the rest of the team but renewed almost twice as many readers than their colleagues did. All that, in fewer calls. As it turned out, a few weeks later, the GM once again put his overconfidence (or ego) in his pocket and asked the Sekounde to turn his experiment in the new way of doing things for that client. The first time was when he had hired Sekounde. There were no more logical reasons (opposite to emotional ones) to resist change at that point. A few weeks later, a memo went around the table during the management team’s meeting. It was the company’s client congratulating the sales team for having reached his goal. A first in almost a year. For once, there were more smiles than long faces around the table.
THE ADDED VALUE OF DIVERSITY
When you look at what Sekounde brought to the team – in terms of situation analysis, tools, insights – and achieved – in terms of results, it is very interesting. First and foremost because these are all things that have nothing to do with his gender, skin color, cultural background, religious faith, the college or university he got a degree from or if he was disabled or not, just to name a few possible traits. It all had to do with knowledge, skills and experience. Ones that were complementary and different enough at the same time. Complementary enough to fit/work with the ones the management team had. Different enough for Sekounde to find a crack in the subscriptions’ problem. Something that end up with him providing the team with insights and an access to a vantage point it didn’t have before he was hired, but sure could now use again in the future.
A Caucasian male, born in North America, with no disabilities, graduated from university X, baptize as a Christian, with past work experience for the “ABC Co” might have been able to find the same crack as Sekounde did. The GM sure did try. It’s actually want he looked for. Sekounde simply was the best fit – in terms of skills requirements and work experiences – for the job. The same could have been possible for a woman, a disabled person or even someone older that the majority of the managers. As knowledge, skills and experience are all color, gender, culture and education-blind.
In the end, when you start looking for complementarity (as the GM did), instead of uniformity or homogeneity in the traits of the people you hire or want to work with, it’s then that “diversity” starts to pay off. That it shows its true value in a workplace: broadening and strengthening the set of skills and vantage points you can count of when having to solve a recurring problem or overcome a new challenge.
Enjoying a cruise control or comfort zone has its perks. When the road/market conditions change though, knowing you can count on the broadest set of skills has something reassuring. More than knowing you’re stuck with a not diversified set, and have to find a way out. Something Edgar, Mary and the other managers clearly experienced and struggled with – while facing the subscriptions’ problem – before Sekounde was hired
In the past, for what situation at work did you wish you could count on more brain power / on a more diversified set of skills that you or your team had?