Diversity – what’s all the fuss about?

Diversity is like motherhood and apple pie. Everyone loves it, everyone claims to want it. Its been talked to death (in books, talk-shows, leadership training etc). It might even be in the official word list of buzzword bingo. Diversity’s moral absolutism demands that corporate America white-wash its brand by adding the token black guy and Asian woman to its products and it’s workforce. Don’t get me wrong. As a female Asian consumer (yes people, Asia includes South Asia and the Middle East), I love seeing commercials with people that look like me. As a working professional, I love that I can apply to and not get rejected for a job based on my color or ethnicity.

However the dialog on Diversity remains as shallow and uninspired as it’s very rudimentary definition. Diversity is ultimately about heterogeneity of thought, feeling and experience and not just about a statistic on minority % in a work-force. While that is essential, it only scratches the surface of what’s required for a truly Diverse environment.

I’m a Diversity statistic who’s rarely experienced Diversity
Recently, at a dinner with some coworkers, one of them said “What’s all the fuss about – you succeeded as a woman! Doesn’t that prove that we are Diverse” – completely valid statement, and one that started this chain of thought for me.
I’ve spent 13 years working in an environment that’s predominantly male and white – and not only survived but thrived. From the outside looking in, not being a white guy hasn’t held me back. The inside out view is different. Along the way, I’ve chosen to mute parts of myself that are less amenable to my environment and dialed up parts of myself that are more amenable. I’ll just rattle off some changes I’ve had to make to fit in and be successful:

  • More aggression, less sensitivity to my own emotional needs as well as others
  • More succinctness, less adjective oriented and emotive language
  • More firmness (commands & statements like “We must”, “We need to”), less qualifiers (like “I think”)
  • Over-use of cold logic in conflict situations than emotional connection
  • More specific, less abstract
  • More decisive and get-shit-done, less creative and exploratory
  • More interest in nerdy stuff (from comics to gadgets to super-hero movies to reading specific blogs to using the latest services/apps to be considered one-of-the-group)

It’s worked brilliantly for my career and yet I’m left exhausted! It’s a lot of work to be someone else and at some point, success stops being worth the cost of pretending. Sadly, on the scale of how much other minorities around me morph to fit in, I represent the lowest degree because I’ve chosen to morph my exterior but stay true to my mind. They’ve allowed the assimilation to run much deeper, and that’s where identity fractures appear.
The point of this saga is that even though I’m contributing positively to a Diversity statistic on some pretty chart, I do not consider my experience (nor do I consider many others’ experience) to be one where heterogeneity was encouraged. At the same time, I have not encountered a single malicious or explicitly anti-Diversity person in my professional life. Not one.

In my experience lack of Diversity does not stem from mal-intent but rather a lack of appropriate focus on the things that unintentionally create a hostile work environment.

Why Diversity alludes us

Imagine that you’re the CEO of a company. You have a strong vision for what success looks like and know how to realize it fast (assuming general wisdom that fast is good, slow is bad). When you build your team, are you more likely or less likely to hire like-minded people who can get the company to the finish line with the least amount of friction? I’m thinking more likely. And that would make your approach similar to how hiring generally happens. Most companies profile for “fit” as a part of the recruitment process. It makes perfect sense.

Now imagine that you’re a white-collar professional who leads a responsible and busy life and has limited (and therefore precious) time for hobbies and friendships. Are you more or less likely to spend that time with people (doing things) that share most aspects of your lifestyle (e.g. age, socio-economic layer, profession, life-stage, values, morality, interests)? I’m thinking more likely.

Answer this question to help me get a pulse on this issue

I believe that both examples above represent a perspective that’s not conducive to Diversity and also illustrate why it’s is so damn hard to create. Diversity is a destination that’s always out of the way of where we are headed in our professional and personal lives. It requires energy we don’t have, for gains that are theoretical at best. The biggest contributors to a homogeneous environment are inertia and familiarity-bias.

Another factor to consider is Who we focus on when we talk about Diversity. Many companies make the Diversity conversation about the need for a larger pool of candidates that represent minorities. Great! Let’s do that. But what happens when they actually join the work-force? They’ll still be a minority and therefore subject to the cultural tone set by the majority. Their choices will be to assimilate, shut down or leave. That’s why the focus has to be turned 180 degrees around to the over-represented groups and the patterns of behavior they exhibit that crowd others out. Any majority will do that (so this isn’t about who’s in the majority). The Kryptonite-to-Diversity behaviors I refer to are:

  • Negative bias for things/styles that are unfamiliar
  • Singular need for speed (get it done, and get it done FAST). As a culture, we worship speed at the cost of wisdom, enrichment and deep insight.
  • Deeply ingrained belief that difference of opinion is a bad thing (i.e. either causes emotional stress or hurts efficiency) and lack of interpersonal skills to resolve disagreement (which is a natural and desired outcome of a group with Diversity of thought i.e. the opposite of group-think).
  • Strong desire for control and safety (Diversity makes our world bigger, challenges our boundaries and beliefs, and that’s naturally very scary)
  • Lack of curiosity about the Other
  • Lack of patience to let things we don’t understand unfold and reveal themselves in entirety. This leads to preemptive judgement without adequate data.
  • Color blindness (unfortunately political correctness is often interpreted to mean we’re all “equal” and therefore “the same”. Equality can and does exist without sameness but that’s lost on a lot of people because they’re scared of offending – refer to my earlier comment about the moral absolutism and religious zeal around Diversity)
  • Lack of personal experience of Diversity enriching one’s life. This translates to a fundamental lack of desire to work towards Diversity.

My Diversity Manifesto

This brings me to my manifesto for Diversity. First and foremost, each one of us represents “majority” in some circle or another. So what I’m asking for applies to every person (and not just white men :)).

  • At least once a day, take one action you do really fast and try doing it at half the speed (if you walk fast, try walking slower, if you type fast, type slower) – sounds silly but great at building patience
  • Make a mental note of how much time you spend talking versus listening in a conversation. Try to reverse your natural disposition every alternate day. Not only will you find yourself listening (if you’re an innate talker) and expressing more (if you’re an innate listener), you’ll also start seeing how different the same conversation can be from these two vantage points.
  • Try engaging with a community or in an activity that you find yourself judging negatively
  • Make a friend that does not represent your socio-economic band. If you’re single, hang out with parents. If you’re young, hang out with someone older. If you’re super-successful, hang out with someone who’s struggling.
  • Educate yourself about distinct ways in which people make sense of the world. I recommend Insights and Myers Briggs as a starting point. You’ll realize that half the people you’ve been calling stupid or incompetent this entire time are not that but just different from you in how they process information. Then actively look out for people that represent different thought processes and find opportunities to work with them. It’ll stretch you like nothing else.
  • Focus on emotional awareness about your own inner state – ask yourself how you feel several times during the day (don’t over-think it: all emotions boil down to: Sad, Glad, Mad, Scared).
  • Focus on emotional states of others – once you begin to recognize this within yourself, you become better at recognizing emotion in others as well. Find a confidante at work who can be a mirror and help
  • Try playing devil’s advocate in conversations – putting yourself in the shoes of someone who doesn’t agree with the majority will help build enduring empathy

Everything I’ve just said essentially aims to build Diversity of experience within ourselves. The world outside is a reflection of the world within. This is an empowering place to be and also a tremendous responsibility. So do your part. Become Diverse. Only then can you demand it of your world.