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Diversity: Some Basic Notions

The first step is to better understand the diversity issue. Let's consider the sources of diversity among people:

• traits, characteristics, value systems, personalities and attitudes—people differ because they were en­coded by their parents at conception and then scripted or rescripted during life
• gender, race, ethnic/cultural background, minority, etc. are also diversity factors that while governed by law to be non-discriminatory still present differences and ongoing change in the workplace
• the disabled and truly handicapped also provide a unique and, in my opinion, a tremendously challenging set of differences in the workplace; fortunately, the reengineering of our thinking and actions about the usefulness of this special segment of our population has allowed many disabled and handicapped people to enter the workaday world and lead productive lives.

Following the old German proverb, "mastery lies in limita­tion," means that this paper will primarily address the aspects of diversity that stem from genetic (inherited) characteristics and learned (experience) characteristics. Both inherited and learned/ reinforced behavior patterns may be influenced from any or all of the three sources cited.

In any event our character and our behavior pattern act as drivers that script and sculpt our value system, personality and both long and short term attitudes. In turn, our values, personality and attitudes greatly influence and motivate how we act. Now we can begin to see how diversity can be a major stimulus or a stubborn inhibitor towards effective teamwork. And this is particularly true in today's world where teamwork, interdependence and cross-border/cross-function activity are all imperatives to both continuous improvement and reengineering innovations.

Positive, supportive actions/behavior will mean closer-knit, more cohesive teamwork. Negative, non-contributory actions/behavior will disrupt smooth teamwork and prove dysfunctional to organizational progress.
Now think about this. Diversity is on the increase. There are two basic reasons for this:

• the demographics of the U.S. workforce will change dramatically, presenting both organizations and man­agers alike with increased diversity and a host of new challenges requiring new solutions; see Annex I, "The Workforce of 2001," for an interesting and very chal­lenging look into the future
• the globalization of business is bringing all of us into increased contact with diverse people and new cul­tures because more and more of us are "doing business" internationally; see Annex II, "Valuing Differences: Communicating Across Cultures," which contains some prescriptions that will prove helpful in communicating more effectively whenever differing cultures, languages, and the like may act as barriers and road blocks to teamwork and collaborative action.

Six Challenging Issues

From the standpoint of any organization there are six challenging issues related directly to diversity, issues that are present now and will grow during the next dozen years, issues that managers and key contributors will face and must resolve:

• organizational awareness—what is the posture of the organization as a whole toward differences of any sort among its people?
• stereotypes—how do we respond to "standard" stereo­types about others who are "different" from us?
• values I attitudes—how do you and I handle others— interact with them—when their basic value system
and/or attitudinal positions significantly differ from ours? Do we just write off people who have "an attitude" without delving into why?
• understanding—do you or I really care enough to take the time and effort to try to understand our co-workers, colleagues, customers, suppliers, potential support­ers, network people, etc. when they are all different— not only from/you and I, but also among each other? Should you or I care enough, or can we just override the situation and through power force the issue or through personality dazzle others into acquiescence, or through guile manipulate them?
• communications—closed loop communications involves sending, receiving, filters and feedback—do we hear one another, really listen to the thoughts of others to ensure we get true meaning—or do we just wait (or interrupt) thinking only about what we will say?
• performance—how do we measure the value added of others, especially when those "others" offer ideas and strategies that differ from ours, and perhaps, just perhaps, are better than ours? And what about those who truly do not perform, do not contribute, and are not team players?

No matter what the cause or justification/rationalization, diversity brings with it challenges to the smooth operation on the people ware side that are infinitely more difficult to manage than on the so-called "hard issues" side. When there is an operational issue with hardware, the problem-solving is largely inanimate—standard problem-solving techniques us­ing schematics, blueprints, roadmaps and other guides, and even built-in tests provide both diagnostics and remedies.

But what about the diversity issues with people? Just when you think you know the "answers," the situation changes. The possibilities from diversity seem infinite. The pragmatic strategy seems to be—expect the unexpected!

Fortunately there are some answers. Because our knowl­edge of the human mind is still imperfect, we cannot expect to find engineering-precision. But experience does give us both some guideposts and techniques that at minimum arm us to meet the challenges—with practice and patience their intelligent use can help us to manage diversity as a competitive weapon. Let's start with the preconditions for success, the "tablestakes" for managing diversity.

Part 1  Part 2   Part 3  Part 4  Part 5  Part 6

 


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