Making Differences Work

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Leaderonomics

28-04-2014

9 min read

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vinesh.naidu@leaderonomics.com

Jim Collins famously put forth the idea that it doesn’t matter who the person is; get the best guy on the bus and it will reach the Promised Land. Somehow.

I think we have to balance it by asking a slightly different question. It probably shouldn’t always be “Is he or she the right person for the job?” Tweak it and ask “Is he or she the right person for the team?”

There have been studies on what aids leadership development in an organisation, and one key focus in the latest trend is workplace or workforce diversity.

Diversity, as it relates to the workforce, and amongst others, refers to the mix of people, background and skills needed to achieve the organisation’s goals.

There exists the viewpoint that it’s easier to manage a workforce that’s homogenous and culturally alike, thus solving the issue of integration and cohesion.

But come on, we are talking about humans here. After all and unless you are part of Pitt and Jolie’s clan who are like the poster-family for diversity in motion, sometimes even siblings don’t get along!

So, I am going to argue that a diverse workforce is actually an advantage to companies rather than a hindrance. Let’s discuss the surrounding issues.

Nietzsche, the German philosopher once said that “the surest way to corrupt a youth is to instruct him to hold in a higher esteem those who think alike, than those who think differently”.

The frequency of innovation has sped up in the past 10 years. Plenty of the aforesaid innovation is actually an amalgamation of existing products and services, leveraging each other’s parts to form a greater sum ; yet we still seem to have so much trouble figuring out how to work together in embracing and taking advantage of our differences.

Cornell University, an Ivy League in the United States describes workplace diversity in a nutshell as – “Workplace diversity is a people issue, focused on the differences and similarities that people bring to an organisation”. Malcolm Forbes is also credited with describing diversity as “the art of thinking independently together”.

So why is it when most people think of diversity, they think first of ethnicity and race, and then gender? Diversity is much broader. Diversity is otherness of those human qualities that are different from our own and outside the groups to which we belong, yet present in other individuals and groups.

In the current understanding of workplace diversity, there are two dimensions that have been identified; the Primary Dimension which includes mainly the inborn; age, race, gender, physical ability et al and the Secondary Dimension which includes education, religion anf marital status .

If you are leading an organisation, it’s important to understand how these dimensions affect performance, motivation, success, and interactions with others.

Consider the Malaysian context of workplace diversity – unfortunately we still seem to be primarily caught up with a person’s race, gender and age!

At the risk of sounding like I am stating the obvious, we are very blessed to have diversity in the workplace as a norm rather than something that needs to be consciously worked on.

Unfortunately, we tend to spend a lot of time consciously looking into the downside of diversity instead of figuring out how to better leverage what others bring to the table.

There are people with poor attitudes, and incompetencies from all walks of life and conversely, there are people who are spirited, intelligent and hard working from all backgrounds! (For those who are still unclear about what this means; these important dimensions are not derived from race, age and gender.)

If you are leading a diverse workforce, your clients are going to benefit from that diversity. A company that makes a choice to be open and flexible with its workforce will more than likely be easy to work with in a business relationship. Thus, understanding, managing, leveraging and finally, strategically harnessing workplace diversity in developing leaders within the organisation will help ensure you gain a leading edge in the market place.

Why Workforce Diversity can aid Leadership Development

The more ways you can see single things from different points of views, the greater the chance you’ll be able to make a better decision. That’s the benefit you reap from a diverse work force.

That viewpoint coincidentally also dovetails perfectly with the leadership attribute of synthesising multiple views and coming up with a wide ranging solution and vision.

As it stands, there is a lot of focus on immediate bottom line results in most organisations. This means there is less focus on some core long-term investments like leadership development of the talent within the companies. Part of it would include exposure to different viewpoints. But because we are focused on short term financial gains, we do not find time to consciously provide talents with the opportunities to be exposed to the diversities of the world.

It’s much easier to just get people to simply deliver their key performance index. But in the longer term, if you have taken the trouble to provide opportunities for diversified views to come together and work through the differences, then, the cumulative effect of the diversity of talents should in fact serve to improve the decision making capabilities of the companies by providing different perspectives to the business’ most pressing needs.

We know the drill. The world today is literally and metaphorically borderless so your market place is actually the whole world and not just your local village store.

Everyone is connected that a product-elated issue in Papua New Guinea is immediately a trending topic, even as far as Siberia, Russia.

Thus, any organisation which wants to survive today’s cut throat competition and emerge victorious will have to rely on innovative products/services and strategies to communicate them. Not only this, it will have to be the first to the market in all these aspects.

To achieve all this, an organisation will have to rely on its talented workforce which can think out of the box and come out with something new each and every time it is expected to do so. One way to accomplish that is through a carefully handpicked and well nurtured diversified workforce.

That explains why top organisations like Google, Microsoft, Accenture and Deloitte have got a separate section on their website, marketing the distinct edge that diversity in their ranks give them.

Diversity of the workforce provides a wider breadth and depth of skills, knowledge and experience for the organisation which in turn aids in leadership decision making.

The experience gained from the exposure to various diverse forces serves only to strengthen one’s abilities and skills. All best practice mantras inform us of the importance of learning from multiple sources and then applying it into our own realities.

Learning from these multitudes of experiences shall in turn make for a more efficient mould from which leaders can be developed. That’s part of what we try to do with our leadership development initiatives at Leaderonomics.

Blending multiple learning interventions by bringing together diverse views and channelling it into becoming learning opportunities!

Diversity at the Workplace as a value proposition

Workplace diversity plays a key role in an organisation’s value proposition as an employer of choice, which in turn will attract better talent and subsequently aid in developing a wider pool of leaders in Malaysian organisations.

Diversity is a natural setting of our national landscape, as opposed to say the American reality of organisations.

Diversity at the workplace has gone through a paradigm shift over the many preceding years – especially in countries which have an imbalance of gender, race and economical access. It has gone from being a legal compliance issue to fairness (the right thing to do) until finally arriving at its current makeup of the necessary and advantageous thing to do.

Many organisations want to be identified as an employer of choice as this normally attracts the best in the field. I feel that a conscious pursuit of a diverse workforce will aid greatly in making the proposition an attractive one.

Just a point of note though – diversity is different from affirmative action. I am not talking about putting in place a quota system in your organisation to forcefully create diversity for whatever reason.

Diversity is about maximising the abilities of all employees to contribute to organisational goals. Affirmative action focuses instead on specific groups because of whatever historical and contextual situations such as race and gender.

Affirmative action emphasises legal necessity and social responsibility; managing diversity emphasises business necessity.

Ok, so let’s say you now have a diverse workforce in your organisation, made up of people of various races, cultures, ages, gender. What’s your role as a leader?

Some key leadership issues related to diversity that you would need to address include

• What policies, practices, and ways of thinking within the organisational culture have differential impact on different groups?

• What organisational changes should be made to meet the needs of a diverse workforce as well as to maximise the potential of all workers, so that your company can be well positioned for the demands of the 21st century?

You would most probably have heard of the golden rule, “Treat others as you want to be treated.” The implicit assumption is that how you want to be treated is how others want to be treated. But when you look at this proverb through a diversity perspective, you begin to ask a few other questions: what is respect; is it the same for everyone? Does it mean saying “hello” in the morning, or leaving someone alone, or making eye contact when you speak?

Take something routine like extending your hand to the business acquaintance. Shaking hands is an accepted and expected part of business etiquette. Or is it?

It depends on the individual. We may share similar values, such as respect or need for recognition, but how we show those values through behaviour may be different for different groups or individuals. How do we know what different groups or individuals need?

There is now the idea of the platinum rule which states: “Treat others as they want to be treated.” Moving our frame of reference from what may be our default view (“our way is the best way”) to a diversity-sensitive perspective (“let’s take the best of a variety of ways”) will help us to manage more effectively in a diverse work environment. Now, this of course takes plenty of time and efforts. It’s the leadership challenge of the 21st century. Are you going to lead the integration of these efforts into your organisation’s cultural fabric or leave it to be sorted out by the masses?

Your Role as a Leader

From a leadership perspective, there are some key roles leaders need to play in transforming the organisational culture to support a diverse work force. For example:

• An understanding and acceptance of the different concepts of managing diversity

• Recognition that diversity is threaded through every aspect of management

• Self-awareness, in terms of understanding your own culture, identity, biases, prejudices, and stereotypes

• Willingness to challenge and change institutional practices that present barriers to different groups

All this is actually a much bigger deal than most people would like to admit. Every individual responds in a myriad of ways to different stimuli. Every leader would kill to obtain the magic formula of managing diversities that exists.

Here’s the not so good news. The formula does not exist. Unfortunately, given the many dimensions of diversity, there is no easy recipe to follow. Advice and strategies given for one situation may not work for the same situation in another context.

And that seems to be the crux of the reason why some people seem to fear diversity. Authoritarian rule is still a much easier choice then having to deal with a difference in opinions within a group of people. It’s so much easier to come to a common conclusion when you are sitting with a group of people who have had the same sort of experiences as you and hold the same world view.

But the world isn’t functioning the same way. Sooner rather than later; if you wish to expand your market reach; you will have to start engaging with the outside world. And then diversity becomes a necessity. Not a choice.

Managing diversity means acknowledging people’s differences and recognising these differences as valuable; it enhances good management practices by preventing discrimination and promoting inclusiveness. So the conclusion you would have to draw is that good management alone will not necessarily help you work effectively with a diverse workforce.

My thoughts have been presented wearing a pretty rose-tinted view of the whole issue. But embracing diversity addresses a deep seated fear of the unknown for most people so it isn’t going to change overnight with a hug and a handshake. A more realistic starting point for all of us would be this very true reflection of the giant steps needed to enable utopia to come true.

“If we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity.” – John F. Kennedy

True leverage of diversity will take some hard work. Let’s at least make it safe to be different.

Vinesh Naidu is head of the talent acceleration programme offered by Leaderonomics. To engage with him email him at vinesh.naidu@leaderonomics.com. Click here for more Be A Leader articles.

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