How to harness diversity

“It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences”  –  Audre Lorde.

RealityAround the world the trend to more diverse workplaces is accelerating. In South Africa, workplaces are beginning to mirror our population distribution. People don’t always see eye to eye. Our inbuilt stereotyping, perceptions, prejudices and bias-filters mean that we sometimes view others with jaundiced eyes (often at the unconscious level). These filters influence how we relate to others from different cultures, ethnicities, religions, belief systems, social classes, genders, sexual preferences, ages, personalities, education levels, language, lifestyles, thinking styles, physical and mental abilities, areas of special giftedness, roles, temporal orientations … Harnessing diversity in organisations is a big challenge.

Positives & possibilities

Psychology professor Richard Crisp has examined how positive creativity and progress may result from culture ‘clashes’, and how a protective, aggressive response to a threat from an outgroup can be beneficially substituted by non-dual, coalition thinking that stimulates positive forward movement.

Social scientist Andre Laurant, Emeritus Professor of Organisational Behaviour at INSEAD discovered a fascinating phenomenon. In brief: the best teams rely on the difference and uniqueness of their members to create something better than can be produced by a mono-cultural (conforming) team. But people who fear difference and put their energy into seeing differences negatively, produce little of note.  The most diverse teams can be the best performing teams.

Moving forward

Some things to do:
• Raise awareness by asking participants to step into the moccasins of the other, what social psychologists call ‘perspective taking’. They can advocate the unique and positive aspects of the other. “Counter-attitudinal advocacy is a process where publicly communicating a belief which runs counter to a belief that the individual holds, can cause a change in the belief of the individual”.
• Encourage the sharing of exchanges and stories within groups or between departments where there is diversity and a need to alter perceptions, beliefs and expectations about the roles, attitudes and characteristics of the others – to break down silos, encourage new understandings and collaboration. A new focus on social, economic and environmental sustainability/regeneration surfaces the need for similar ‘interventions’ between business, government, NGOs, activists …
• Consider that in certain instances, individual counselling and coaching is the only way forward.

Now is the time to get rid of ‘we and them’ attitudes in our organisations. Instead of walls and barriers a more appropriate metaphor for our times is that of a bridge. An Ubuntu attitude, a culture of inclusivity, where ‘cultural intelligence’ is embedded in culture and serves to attract talent, ensure better decision-making and problem-solving, more creativity – and of course a climate of tolerance and non-dual thinking.

Graham Williams is an Associate at Change Partners.

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