Intelligence does not guarantee insight. However, diversity does. The very leverage of knowledge is dialogue. And dialogue, a true exchange of ideas and opinions, is only possible in an environment that welcomes and fosters diversity, not the diversity façade, but the diversity lever of possibility.
Although diversity can be a sensitive and often incendiary issue, I want to focus on diversity’s greatest benefit: the birth and exchange of ideas and perspectives.
What is the goal of diversity in the workplace? Why is diversity an important topic? What are distinct, tangible benefits of diversity in the workplace?
I feel diversity efforts attempt to build an environment where qualitatively, diverse individuals are expected to provide insight, cross-learning opportunity, and opinion. However, what too often results is the extreme opposite: a retreat to group-think and the dilution of individuality to a normative environment or culture.
When diversity’s focus is an adherence to legal needs the competitive advantage diversity truly holds is patently ignored. Since diversity is both a qualitative and a cognitive endeavor, fostering a diverse culture is far harder than simple assembly of a diverse team.
Diversity is not achieved through race, religion, or other qualitative attribute. The true benefit of diversity is achieved when individuals are empowered to share divergent views and opinions without fear of retribution or negative consequence. Not qualitative diversity, but cognitive diversity.
I will pick on the easiest of prey, the Anglo male, to make a point. If I am in a strategic planning meeting made up of 5 white males, the assumption some might make is that this is not a diverse group. That assumption is patently wrong.
When I judge diversity through a qualitative lens I might assume there is no diversity on this team, however, are you comfortable diversity is achieved only if we ask the members of the group their religion? If religion is not good enough, do I have to ask the members of the group what their sexual preferences are? If sexuality is not good enough, do I have to ask the members of the group for any disabilities?
This is one of my greatest pains about qualitative diversity: how many questions do I need to ask to assure I met diversity standards? If one person answers uniquely any one of those questions do I then have diversity? If no, how many unique questions does it take to achieve diversity? [How many of those questions are legal to ask?]
While qualitative diversity or quota-driven diversity goals too often compel organization’s diversity missions, I wonder the benefit gained when there is no environment to contribute divergent thoughts? Diversity training should focus less on acculturating people to accept the qualitative diversity aspects of others, but instead encourage the acceptance to cognitively, diverse contributions.
An environment that encourages and supports a variety of perspectives, that truly celebrates uniqueness of thought, will assure robust thinking. It is this thinking, this cognitive diversity, that teams and organizations can maximize to increase profits.
In the absence of cognitive diversity an environment of group-think and consensus forces conformity and manufactured consent. Not only is group-think uncreative, group-think in a knowledge economy is dangerous to your organization’s health. If your organization is to survive and prosper your continuing challenge is to overcome group-think.
Only in an environment where unique thought is valued and protected does diversity exist. Therefore an organization’s greatest challenge is to create an environment where thought is appreciated, not where push back is judged negatively, but where push back builds a better dialogue to contribute to a better conversation.
In the next blog I will talk about how open conversation and dialogue builds employee motivation, competitive market advantage, and commitment (not buy-in, but commitment).
In The Wisdom of Crowds, James Surowiecki states:
The positive case for diversity, as we have seen, is that it expands a group’s set of possible solutions and allows the group to conceptualize problems in unique ways.
*I want to thank Nauman Malik and Deloitte Consulting. While both Nauman and I worked with Deloitte Consulting we authored and presented a white paper on cognitive diversity. Some of the thoughts above stemmed from that white paper. Nauman may be the most polar opposite of me I can imagine, it is why our conversations were always rich with insight and humor.