While there is much to celebrate in the ways that leaders honor diversity in the workplace, it seems that we are still emphasizing a need to accommodate, or work around, difference. We've been socialized to think that if someone is different from us, if their culture or background is not the same as our own, we must behave as if that difference doesn't exist. Many feel proud to say "I don't see (color/gender/age), I just see you as a person." However, the failure to acknowledge difference has two substantial consequences: it minimizes others' individuality and identity, and it blinds us to opportunities to expand our own world views, learn from each other, and appreciate the new ideas and ways of thinking that come from a diverse workplace.

The workplace is a rich source of diversity of backgrounds, ages, races, ethnicities, gender orientations, and styles of thought. Rather than aspiring to be blind to these differences, teams benefit when we learn to appreciate how diversity enhances success. The leaders who are best at harnessing the value of diversity are the ones who are willing to say, "You and I are different. Let's talk about that. Let's figure out how our perspectives might complement each other, how they might compete with each other, and what that means about how we're going to work together." Instead of minimizing difference, we can choose to leverage a variety of perspectives, work styles and world views to best work together and move toward a common goal.

The first step in accomplishing this is to recognize that traditional views of diversity focus on racial or cultural difference, but even within a group of people who seem very similar, there are multiple sources of difference. Our ways of viewing the world, styles of thought, ways of analyzing issues and managing conflict, and personalities are also a source of difference from which we can benefit. Even demographically, we find that cultures exist within generations, social groups, and organizations. Each of us is a unique combination of those cultural influences.

The second step is actually exploring differences, and the best way to do that is simply to ask questions and open a dialogue. When these questions come from a place of genuine curiosity, leaders can strike up a conversation with employees about their traditions or their culture, what experiences they've had and how their perspectives differ from others on the team. Activities such as a brainstorming session focused on identifying multiple ways of looking at an issue based on gender or age group, or different problem-solving styles, can contribute to creating an environment in which employees feel safe to express their perspectives. Another way to open a dialogue might be more structured but still informal, such as hosting a picnic or potluck lunch where employees can bring a favorite recipe, or talk about their cultural traditions. In a formal setting, those conversations can be awkward, but having them informally is less intimidating and more relaxed, and both employees and leaders can greatly benefit from learning more about each other. 

The willingness to explore and discuss all of those differences, not just in races and ethnicities but differences across generations and across life experiences, is a crucial element of harnessing diversity in the workplace. By starting the conversation, leaders are serving as role models and creating a culture of acceptance and appreciation of difference in the organization. To paraphrase William Wrigley, Jr., if two people agree on everything, one of them is unnecessary. Diverse groups are more likely to generate multiple perspectives, fresh ideas, and innovative thinking. The first step toward leveraging those perspectives is creating a culture where difference is not only acknowledged, it's celebrated.

Published on: May 28, 2015
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