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Part 4 – Why Diversity Efforts Fail – A Four Part Series of Observations and Recommendations

Diversity and Inclusion efforts are focused on a group of people instead of all employees

I left this one for last because I feel that often the discussion of D&I is focused on the “out” group. The “out” group are demographically diverse groups like African Americans, women, the disabled, LGBTQ and others. Many times, there are white men and women (the “in” group) who feel marginalized by diversity efforts and feel left out. It’s not helpful when any group feels left out of the D&I effort. It’s not helpful to paint all white men/women or any group with a broad brush.

A bulk of the diversity and inclusion interventions I have seen are focused on focused on helping the “out” group and training the “in” groups about their unconscious biases. As if the person in the “out” has a deficiency and the person in the “in” group, just by membership in this group, has a bias against someone in the “out” group. Recently I took a group of implicit bias surveys regarding race, gender and sexual preference as a part of my participation in training that I was observing. I learned one thing that is important and relevant to this discussion. Bias is not binary. It can and does exist on a continuum from no bias to having an extreme bias with everything in between. I have seen in the discussion and planning of D&I efforts broad generalizations that are used for making a point but are less useful when attempting to craft a meaningful D&I strategy that will be inclusive of the entire workforce.

This paradigm has only made the issue worse and created a culture of “Us versus Them”. I am reminded of the phrase, “we are internally collaborative to be externally competitive.” A successful D&I effort should be focused up and down the organization as well as horizontally. Every person whether they be in leadership or an individual contributor needs support in learning new ways of doing business and working with others.

Rarely if ever, have I seen, a diversity and inclusion strategy that brings to light the need to work with both the “in” and the “out” group in a way that says both parties must adapt for the D&I effort to be deemed a success. What I have most often seen are attempts to have the “out” group “fit in” and not make the “in” group too uncomfortable or efforts that make the ‘in” group feel as if they have committed a mortal sin against the “out” group.

What is needed is an approach that moves beyond racial, gender and sexual orientation discussions to one that recognizes that everyone in the organization brings differences that add value, differences that make no difference and other differences that detract from organizational goals. Not all differences matter or should be celebrated. Differences exist in the context of work and should be evaluated from the perspective of getting work done. This is not to say that there is not an acknowledgement of larger societal influences (biases, racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.) but the focus here is about how to get the best out of people when they come to work. The question becomes how can those that work in a company create a space that is not of the “in” or “out” group but a mutually agreed upon third space where the differences that make a difference can be leveraged for the benefit of the organization.

One example of this are sports teams and their players. Each team has a goal of winning games through a strategy or playbook. Each team will hire players with different skills that support that strategy or playbook. These players come from around the globe and country with many different backgrounds, experiences and perspectives. On this team, there will be players or groups of players that might socialize together and some may not. The important thing is that each person is united by a goal to win games using their different skills to execute plays. Each player will be coached by the professional staff on their performance and in some instances, are encouraged to help other players to be successful by watching film to see what they do well and what they could improve on. Each player brings with them baggage from the outside world that is secondary to the goal of winning and executing strategy. They have created a third space where they can perform as a unit using each player’s differences that make a difference to win games and be successful. Companies can adapt this perspective to leverage all their talent and engage everyone not just the “out” group. This approach will also not alienate white men and women but include them in the diversity and inclusion discussion.

Companies that wish to be best in class with their diversity and inclusion efforts should beware of “best practices”, “cookie cutter” tactics and approaches that single out and target a group. Inclusive leaders will be those that are skilled at getting everyone to embrace how to work best and most effectively with people that are unlike ourselves while creating a minimum of organizational noise. They will help their teams see the D&I effort as a business opportunity that if executed well they and the company will be rewarded.

A broader perspective of “being diverse” that includes but is not limited to generational differences, personality, communication and thinking styles would be a helpful framework to have organizations think about differences that are beyond race, gender and sexual orientation to include all people and not just a group of people. Below is the way to think of a person as having many dimensions of diversity. My experience with the “diversity wheel” (Adapted from Loden & Rosener, Workforce America! 1991) led me to believe that people that are the same on one dimension of diversity often have different ways of thinking of that dimension. Furthermore, they may also have influences that make one dimension more important to them at a given point in time. For two white males that are the same on their racial gender identity may differ in some significant ways. One may think of their sexual orientation as the most prominent and important dimension while another might have their religious beliefs as the most important dimension. Some of these dimensions we are born with and others may change over time.

It’s important for organizations to recognize the diversity that exists within each employee and help to develop the capability in their leadership and in each employee to understand these differences and which ones that matter in the context of work and the achievement of goals. Companies that approach a D&I effort with the goal of elevating all employee’s capability to work with people that are different from themselves will be rewarded with an effort that has many allies and measurable results.

I hope these observations and recommendations have been helpful to you as you and your organization seek to engage your entire workforce, retain them and provide better product and services to your customers.

© Benton+Bradford Consulting