Different Kinds of Difference

On December 26, 2016, in HRExaminer, Joe Gerstandt, by Joe Gerstandt

Joe Gerstandt, HRExaminer Editorial Advisory Board Contributor.

Joe Gerstandt, HRExaminer Editorial Advisory Board Contributor.

While it may not seem like it right now, given the numerous, noisy and frequently nasty conversations regarding issues related to diversity playing out in the public sphere in recent years, organizational diversity and inclusion efforts are still very much in their infancy and still suffer greatly from conceptual and linguistic underdevelopment. In most organizations today the words diversity and inclusion do not have any real meaning, though this is frequently true of “innovation,” “talent,” and “engagement” as well. Diversity is typically a code word (maybe this is why we so frequently feel the need to wrap it in air quotes?), referring not to a thing, but rather a few specific groups of people; generally black and brown people, women, gay people, maybe one or two other groups, and inclusion is kind of a fashion statement, a way of signaling to others that we are a certain type of person or organization, that we have a certain sensibility.

Maybe your organization is the exception, but my experience tells me that if I walk in the door tomorrow morning and ask ten people at random what diversity is, why it is valuable and how we capture that value, I will hear ten different answers and most of them will not make any sense.

It should be no wonder that smart, capable folks and organizations struggle to realize progress in these endeavors when there is so much ambiguity at the core. If you cannot settle on clear, concise, and logical definitions of diversity and inclusion I think you will only truly benefit from them by accident.

Diversity means difference. That is not likely how you have been using the word, but it you consult the dictionary that is what you will find, and I have yet to discover a convincing reason to use it in a different way. It does not mean difference and sameness, as so many organizations seem to be intent on using it. When you say that the addition sign in mathematics is for adding and subtracting it becomes a lot less valuable and a lot less clear how to use it. Sameness is certainly another important and powerful important dynamic in the world of humans, but we already have a word for it.

We are in desperate need of greater clarity and less lyricism in our orientation toward this set of issues.

Greater clarity in our foundational language invites much more logical and actionable conversations about our approach to diversity. Rather than continuing to copy and paste hollow and lazy phrases such as “we celebrate and embrace the rich diversity…,” we can consider that difference shows up in a lot of different ways and we need to understand what kinds of difference have value to us and why. This is merely a start, but a few basic distinctions to consider.

Identity Diversity: These are differences in our real and/or perceived identities and this is where the vast majority of our conversations and efforts around diversity happen. Even though we wish it were not so, identity has consequences. I have recently read that it is time to celebrate “the death of identity politics,” (ha, as if there were another kind of politics in our lifetime), but identity is our first ideology and it has consequences far beyond our very respectable intentions. Being competitive in the market for talent demands real rigor in looking for and removing barriers (many or all of which may be unintentional or implicit) to entry, belonging and full participation. There has been a lot of talk about this work, we have hung many posters and filled our bellies at many ethnic potlucks, but this work is really just beginning as well.

Cognitive Diversity: Diversity of thought is a newer, and in many corners a much more warmly embraced part of the diversity conversation. A noticeably homogenous group of folks frequently exclaims to me, “this is the diversity that really matters!” There should be no doubt that it does in fact matter. Scott Page and others have helped to connect the dots between diversity of thought and performance in complex social processes, such as decision-making and problem solving. Page differentiates between diverse perspectives (or ways of seeing a problem), which are more likely to lead to breakthrough discoveries, and diverse heuristics (or ways of solving problems), which are more likely to lead to smaller, iterative improvements. Page, not a social justice warrior, but a professor of mathematics and complexity science makes his point directly in “The Difference:”

“The best problem solvers tend to be similar; therefore a collection of the best problem solvers performs little better than any one of them individually. A collection of random, but intelligent, problem solvers tends to be diverse. This diversity allows them to be collectively better. Or to put it more provocatively: diversity trumps ability.” Emphasis his.

It goes without saying that the ability of the group to understand each other and work together is also a large variable in the outcome, but numerous studies across a variety of fields have linked cognitive variation with greater creativity and innovation.

There are numerous causes of cognitive diversity, from genetic hand-me-downs, to education, life-experience and identity. It is hard, in fact, to completely divorce diversity of thought from diversity of identity.

Value Diversity: These are our differences in values, or what Page would refer to as fundamental preference diversity; and while identity diversity and cognitive diversity (again, in the right container) have value, value diversity causes problems. I would actually suggest that too much variance in values is as significant an issue in most organizations as is the lack of identity and / or cognitive diversity. I, for example, get hired to do diversity and inclusion workshops for organizations and those organizations frequently have grand and even poetic statements of commitment to diversity and inclusion. In spite of said commitments, the people in the room frequently have a chapped ass that I am there and that they have to talk about “this crap.”

I am not suggesting that you have to truly value diversity or inclusion, you are free to make that decision on your own. If you do actually value it though, hiring folks who do not value it is going to make things unnecessarily difficult for both parties. Either it matters or it does not. Shared values are a critically important part of the container, within which, people who are naturally different from each other can actually benefit from the ways in which they are different.

We also must take great care (Mr. Zuckerberg) to not lose sight of the great difference between variances in perspective and variances in values.

I believe there are strong and logical cases to be made for efforts to bring more identity and cognitive diversity into most organizations (and into the right kind of culture, but that is for another post). Of equal importance, I believe, is reducing the amount of value diversity in most organizations. Room for improvement on both sides of the issue.

If you are one of those organizations proudly “embracing and celebrating the rich diversity”

…what kind, and why?

Be good to each other.

 
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