For many people, “diversity” tends to bring very specific issues to mind. People often
assume that a diversity conversation is going to primarily be about one or some
combination of these things; race relations, gender, affirmative action, quotas,
harassment and compliance. While these issues are certainly a part of the larger
conversation, “diversity” does not mean any of those things. Diversity means
difference…that is what the word means. We cannot expect organizational and
community leaders to take well informed actions when we are not able to be precise
and consistent with our language.
“Words do matter. Language is messy by nature, which is why we
must be careful in how we use it. As leaders, after all, we have little
else to work with. We typically don't use hammers and saws to do
our real work. The essence of leadership - what we do with 98
percent of our time - is communication. To master any practice, we
must start by bringing discipline to the domain in which we spend
most of our time, the domain of words.
There are many ways in which we can be different and here are some basic categories
for thinking about difference, each with different implications for work:
Identity Diversity (differences in who we are) including, but not limited to:
• primary dimensions such as orientation, gender, gender identity, race, physical ability, etc.
• secondary dimensions such as marital status, level of education, military experience, religion,
hobbies, geography, income level, etc.
• organizational dimensions such as tenure, department, management status, etc.
Cognitive Diversity (differences in how we think) including, but not limited to:
• perspectives: subjective evaluation, point of view, how things appear to a person
• heuristics: problem solving approach, rules of thumb
• equifinality: openness to other approaches, perspectives
Affective Diversity (differences in how we feel, believe) including, but not limited to:
• emotions: affective state of consciousness
• beliefs: opinion or conviction, confidence in the truth of something not immediately
susceptible to rigorous proof
• values: what is considered to have worth, excellence, usefulness, or importance
Behavioral Diversity (differences in how we behave) including, but not limited to:
• work style: natural patterns for getting our work done
• communication style: natural patterns for communicating with co-workers
• work-life balance: natural patterns of balancing priorities and demands
Difference (diversity) is a relational thing. Diversity exists within the context of
relationship…and that is the only place that it exists. You can only be different from
someone else…the relationship is inherent. That is why this work is largely about
relationships…who we have relationships with and the nature of those relationships.
Diversity does not exist in people, it exists between people…and it exists between all
people. Anytime there is more than one person present, diversity is also present. This
is one of the reasons why the “diversity vs. talent” debate that bubbles up from time
to time is fundamentally misinformed…talent is an individual attribute, diversity is not.
Diversity (difference) is a relational attribute, shared and social in nature.
You think that because you understand “one,” you
must understand “two,” because one and one make
two. But you must also understand “and.”
Difference (diversity) generates change…it is a natural catalyst. Any time that you
introduce additional diversity into a social group or pay more attention to existing
diversity, you will change the dynamics and the patterns of behavior in that social
group (whether it be a family, a community, a team or an organization). Whether
those changes lead to positive or negative outcomes depends on the capacity of that
social group to include difference. If you introduce additional difference without
increasing that capacity, you are likely to get outcomes like these:
• increased us vs. them mentality
• increased stereotyping
• increased in-group favoritism
• increased inter-group conflict
• decreased employee satisfaction, performance, and retention
Unfortunately, when this happens, organizations and communities (and organizational
and community leaders) often misdiagnose what has happened and conclude that
diversity has caused these outcomes, whereas it is actually a product of the container
that the diversity has been introduced to. This is why understanding inclusion is so
inclusion is the
capacity to include
All social groups (families, communities, organizations, etc.) are inherently conformist.
They have a natural resistance to difference and change. Organizations do things
(intentional and unintentional, explicit and implicit) to keep difference out, and they
do things (intentional and unintentional, explicit and implicit) to reduce or remove the
difference of what “gets inside.”
Inclusion can be thought of as a continuum and it is simply the capacity of an
organization to include difference. Some organizations are more inclusive than others,
the key is to have an accurate understanding of how inclusive your organizations is so
that you can be intentional and deliberate about the direction you are moving.
Inclusion is incredibly important, as it is one of the characteristics of an organizations
culture, that determines its ability to utilize the resources that it has access to,
especially the human resources and the associated intangible assets such as
perspectives, experiences, ideas, curiosity, etc.
How much and what kinds of difference can your team, community organization
include? And what evidence of this do you have?
To truly include difference requires sharing power, in a relationship of equals. Unless
an organization is aggressive and deliberate about minimizing them, power and
privilege dynamics make inclusion very difficult. When power is not shared and one
party has to do all of the accommodating, the relationship is not dialogic and inclusion
is not happening. What was different is forced to conform, rather than naturally and
organically interacting with the existing cultural, changing it and being changed by it
with both parties doing some of the accommodating.
Again, difference is relational and diversity and inclusion work is largely about the
nature of our relationships..so what kind of relationship are you inviting difference
into? Who does the accommodating?
Companies that learn to harness the value of
decentralized power will win against those that simply
exploit their people to perform specific tasks.
-Nilofer Merchant, The New How
The more difference that you include, the more intersections you create…whether
they be intersections of different people, politics, or professions. Intersections give
life to new things. Sparks are thrown at those intersections where perspectives,
assumptions, cultures, ideas and questions collide and this is what lights the fires of
creativity and innovation.
While there is great creative opportunity at these intersections, there is also tension.
Anytime you bring difference together (regardless the kind of difference) you create
tension. If you want to include more diversity and actually reap the rewards that
diversity offers, you have to be willing and able to work with and through the tension.
This determines whether the natural tension gives life to conflict or creativity.
Our time is a time for crossing barriers, for erasing old
categories, for probing around.
Inclusion of something or someone that is different is proactive and it is disruptive to
the status quo. It is a constant struggle against our social drive toward conformity. It
is also a struggle against our own human nature, because even if we aspire to be
“nonjudgmental,” we can easily end up with skewed perceptions and interpretations
of the behavior of others, especially those we believe to be different from us.
Regardless of our good intentions, our level of education or our level of
professionalism, we are all very susceptible to being unintentionally and even
unconsciously influenced by things like assumptions, stereotypes, implicit associations,
attribution errors and cognitive biases. We are actually very ill equipped to reach
accurate assessments of others and this is part of what makes it very difficult for us to
actually be inclusive. If we are not proactive, intentional and deliberate about
including difference, we will unintentionally be exclusive.
We do not see things as they are, we see things as we
inclusion can be rich
sources of value
Don’t believe the hype! Contrary to what you might have heard, the “business case
for diversity and inclusion” is stronger than ever. A few of the reasons why this work
can be so valuable to our organizations and communities:
1. survival: one of the characteristics of organizations that outlast their competitors;
“…openness to the outside world, tolerance for the entry of new individuals and ideas, and
consequently a manifest ability to learn and adapt to new circumstances.” (Arie de Geus )
2. competitive advantage: for many organizations the great opportunity for competitive
advantage is innovation, and diversity and inclusion are innovation is made of.
3. generational transition: we are on the front end of an unprecedented generational transition
and organizations will need to understand generational differences to successfully navigate.
4. workforce demographics: the demographics of the workforce have changed and
organizations not good at attracting, engaging and retaining women and people of color are
going to be competing for an increasingly small portion of the talent available.
5. new consumer profile: the profile of the decision maker is changing and organizations
wanting to capture emerging markets will need to be able to partner with and truly
understand those markets.
6. better problem solving: diversity, especially cognitive diversity has been shown to improve a
groups ability to explore a broader set of options and to solve complex challenges
7. conformity kills: too much conformity can be a really bad thing allowing small technical
issues to develop into large scale tragedies. A focus on diversity and inclusion helps minimize
Diversity and inclusion may be the most poorly understood set of issues in the world
of work today. Many organizations and communities struggle to even have effective
discussions about issues related to diversity and inclusion often due, at least partially,
to a lack of common language and shared understanding of core concepts. Everyone
is using the same words, but talking about very different things. Organizational
diversity and inclusion work faces a number of challenges in 2010, but the greatest
challenge before us may very well be lack of clarity.
We do not need universally agreed upon definitions and priorities, but the mistake
that organizations nearly always make is deciding to do some diversity and inclusion
work without clarifying, within that organization, what diversity means, what inclusion
means, why those things matter and how the plan of action is aligned with and builds
upon that foundational understanding.
What looks like resistance is often a lack of clarity.
-Switch, Dan and Chip Heath
illuminating the value of difference
joe gerstandt is a freedom fighter, speaker and
facilitator helping organizations and communities
deliver on their promises…
inclusive culture | innovative practices | integral leadership | intentional relations