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Grist: Down With Bossocracy

Though many large companies have rushed to support the diversity policies at the University of Michigan, how many American businesses, large or small, really encourage diversity of thought?
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Grist

Three cheers for diversity! Have you read that dozens of big companies support the University of Michigan in its landmark affirmative action case, which the Supreme Court is currently deliberating? According to Eastman Kodak, Intel, Coca-Cola, American Airlines, and other corporate icons, American business benefits from a diverse work force -- ethnically and intellectually -- and they want everyone to know where they stand.

I'm not going to plunge, or even wade, into the treacherous issue of affirmative action. As for corporate businesses on a larger sphere -- a macro kind of diversity -- I wish that companies had the guts to practice the commitment that they so proudly trumpet to the Supreme Court: the cultivation and guardianship of divergent, challenging, rainbow-hued ideas within their own organizations. This is a far more difficult and systemic challenge than gestural diversity -- a couple of African Americans, Latinos, and women in a chummy and cheery annual-report photo.

It may be 2003, but the bossocracy still reigns supreme. And it's no nano-problem. We are suffering from a pallid homogeneity of opinion. Despite all the blather about rule-blasting ideas -- summed up in that vile phrase "out-of-the-box thinking" -- a truly hot, original idea is pursued relentlessly, if not viciously, by management death squads.

And, despite all the talk about squished hierarchies and pushing decision-making down, enormous and unquantifiable sums of time and money -- billions, no doubt -- are wasted in attempts to anticipate the bossocracy's whims. To survive you need to work around its biases. You need to temper, trim, and tailor your comments, purging the PowerPoint of offending language likely to yank the CEO off on a favorite sidebar. We are obedience-training our management. Like suburban houses with an invisible fence that stands ready to jolt a golden retriever ambitious enough to lunge across the property line, the corporate landscape ropes off a safe perimeter -- and electrocutes the adventurous.

Don't think this is a problem that is limited to big companies, either. Smaller companies, led by opinionated entrepreneurs, often create some of the most thought-controlled bossocracies. They have succeeded by an undying belief in themselves and their ideas -- often by specifically not listening to the "wisdom" around them -- and they are not about to stop now.

How have we gotten here? Several forces have conspired. Take Corporate Culture, a generally accepted business mantra. Sure, it's a good thing to instill a shared vision up and down the organization. But corporate culture has a dark side when it gets twisted and turned into a code word for hiring and promoting people who toe the line, play the game. "He's a good fit" just means he won't make trouble.

The death of the job-for-life model -- buried gleefully by modern business practice -- has also had some unintended consequences. Back when you couldn't get fired unless you sent the boss's daughter a copy of the Kama Sutra for her birthday, you felt secure enough to challenge the conventional wisdom. (True, you also could get lazy and take your job for granted.) Today -- when many employees fear they could be axed at any moment -- there's no reason to stand outside in the thunderstorm. The new corporate zen is the art of being out of a meeting when controversial items come up.

When smart companies do stupid things, however, it's not because there aren't enough bright people to see the warning lights. It's because no one who matters -- the CEO, the chairman, the board of directors -- really wants to know their opinions. In the end, nothing is more damaging to any form of diversity than a closed mind. Thus, my message to the business behemoths who are beating the drum for ethnic diversity is simple. Now is also the time to stop discriminating against those who are different because of the color of their thinking.

Contributor Adam Hanft ( ahanft@inc.com) is president of Hanft Byrne Raboy, a Manhattan-based advertising and marketing firm.


Please E-mail your comments to editors@inc.com.

Last updated: Apr 1, 2003




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