The surest way to relegate your organization or your career to mediocrity is to pursue goals without truly understanding either the goal or your means to achieve them. This is particularly true of diversity efforts, which have the power to create unintended consequences, like alienation, by focusing on differences rather than commonalities.
Last year, a peer was hired by a Fortune 500 Company with a robust diversity recruitment program. She was impressed by the numerous awards and accolades the company had earned but, soon after being hired, learned that new employees were so indoctrinated with rigid parameters that the ability to be different was stifled beyond rescue. Diversity of thought was mildly encouraged, but only within the parameters of the "Company Way." As a Human Resources professional, she found the irony of the situation maddening and, without the ability to pierce the bureaucracy, left and found a better fit with a smaller company that allowed her greater freedom to promote diversity and change.
The business case for diversity centers on the benefits of multi-perspective thinking. We encourage the inclusion of people with different backgrounds or experience because doing so allows an organization to understand problems from different angles. In theory, this affords a more thorough analysis of any issue, even if it complicates the decision by lengthening the process. In order for this to work, however, the voices of diversity must be heard. This means that simply giving different people a seat at the table is not enough. Instead, it means encouraging input and, indeed, leadership among divergent and even contrarian thinkers. This might be uncomfortable, but even small steps towards these goals can reduce polarization and enhance inclusiveness efforts.
1. Be Values-driven. Respect and integrity in business and social interaction are important not only for inclusiveness, but to external stakeholders. No matter how far you delve into contrarian thought and action, it's important to adhere to your organization's values and principles in your experiments with diversity. News travels at lightning speed and your personal and organizational reputation is crucial to retaining and motivating employees. Having and respecting your organization's values is not a limitation, but an advantage. It allows you to anchor your explorations and maintain your unique identity.
2. Seek input in unlikely places. Sometimes the best leader is the reluctant one. For cultural or personal reasons, some people might be timid about sharing opinions. They may be embarrassed or unaccustomed to being provided a role other than listener, or order-taker in a particular forum. They may have a different way of doing things than your more vocal team-members. Find a forum for capturing their thoughts. E-mails, smaller or more focused group brainstorming sessions, or even methods of anonymous contribution might be in order.
3. Encourage contrarians. A different style or mannerism can often affect the perceived value of a person's contribution. This can be a fatal mistake. After all, you've sought out diversity: now leverage it to discover where it provides value. A fashion mistake or disrespecting a social tradition by, for instance, wearing jeans where senior management will be wandering, doesn't reflect an inability to think critically. Look past the obvious rituals and abandon personal biases to focus on what really matters. Don't let different mean wrong and don't let people be anything but willing to share thoughts. Explore instead of dismissing. At worst, it will bolster confidence in your position. Ideally, it will improve the thought processes of your entire team.
4. Enable leadership. Make championing an idea as easy and natural as commuting to work. When a good idea is explored, encourage its owner to help it evolve. This is critical, for it creates ownership and investment in everyone along the path to fruition, no matter what the finished product looks like.
5. Share information. Great ideas, discoveries, and revolutions are built upon predecessors. Share information and allow it to catalyze further innovation. This is the great advantage of our modern world- the ability to find and share information on almost any subject. Your organization's progress should capitalize on the ease of information exchange.
Introspection is often forced upon us (as it is now by a slow economy). Take this opportunity to analyze your current organization and, if you dare, permit yourself and your peers some discomfort. You may find that simple ways to utilize your diverse workforce and leverage the multiplicity of thought inherent in heterogeneity can help you create a legacy of excellence.
About the Author: R.S. Basi is a self-proclaimed contrarian. As an attorney and scholar, he has written without shame about different ways of looking at legal and social institutions. His most recent work, The Black Hand of God (ISBN 9780984147403, published by The Marked, LLC 2009) is the fictionalized account of the life of Dona Beatriz Kimpa Vita, often called the "African Joan of Arc" and one of that continent's greatest religious leaders and contrarians. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and via the book's website at http://www.theblackhandofgod.com.
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