I have a soft spot for diversity – particularly the fascinating business of getting people in business to learn how to value diversity (not merely tolerate it) so that the differences between people become an asset rather than a hindrance.

In my paper today there is a story about a commercial airline pilot who, not realising his microphone was switched on, launched into a candid appraisal of his cabin crew.  According to him  they were either gays, grannies or overweight (or all three).  The pilot was suspended because his diatribe was not considered ‘consistent with professional behaviour and the overall respect required towards colleagues’.  However, he was reinstated following diversity training!  I’d love to know whether he was reinstated because he begrudgingly attended diversity training or because the training had a lasting impact on his behaviour.  I suspect the answer, almost certainly, is the former.

Opinions differ about whether the aim of diversity training is to change attitudes or behaviours (or both!).  I have come across an interesting model that sums up the issue.  It shows an equilateral triangle.  Each point has a different label; head (knowledge), hand (behaviour), heart (attitudes) and the caption is ‘any two will lead you to the third’.  In other words, a combination of knowing about diversity (head) and having the necessary skills (hand), would automatically result in you having the right attitude.  Many organisations gamble that merely raising awareness about diversity will do the trick, but this ignores the fact that people need help developing the skills to get it to happen.

When two people – yes, only two people – meet there is diversity.  This is true even if the two people in question share lots of characteristics.  Perhaps they are both white, both female, both of a similar age, both middle class, both mums with young children, both keen internet users.  Despite all these similarities, there will be lots of differences – in height and weight say, in outlook (one is a half full person and the other a half empty person), in talents, skills and abilities.  In fact, even though at first sight the similarities apparently exceed the differences, the chances are that the opposite is true.

If this is true for just two people, imagine how the differences multiply as soon as you add more people.  Certainly a group of, say, eight people, with a mix of backgrounds and personalities, will have more differences than similarities.  Indeed this is supposed to be the whole point of using a group to tackle a task; they have the potential to thrive more on the differences than the similarities and thus achieve the ‘magic’ of synergy, i.e. producing more than the sum of the individual parts.

The word ‘potential’ is important in the last sentence because whether a group succeeds in benefiting from the diversity of its members, depends on how the differences are managed.  This is undoubtedly a challenge; it is easy for groups to finish up being handicapped rather than helped by differences.  Sadly, most people’s experience of diversity tends to be negative. Diverse perceptions make people interpret things differently; diverse views are more difficult to synthesise; diverse ideas make reaching a consensus more difficult; diverse learning style preferences significantly affect people’s approach to tasks and challenges.  The list is endless!  The temptation to clamour after sameness and harmonious ‘group think’ is entirely understandable.  And yet, since diversity between people is an inescapable fact, it screams out to be harnessed and used to advantage.  The alternative is not only a waste of human resources but an increase in unwanted friction between people and poor compromises and/or deadlocked decisions. 

When diversity is valued it leads to greater participation, the generation of more creative ideas and, as a consequence, better problem solving/decision making. But, even when people see that diversity is something to be welcomed and celebrated, they often struggle to understand what to do to use it to advantage.  There are some essential skills that aid and abet positive diversity; consulting widely to gather in different views and perspectives, listening hard, looking for the positives in people’s ideas, building/developing on other people’s ideas so that they are added to, not refuted.  Certainly, these skills are more demanding and it requires a greater investment of effort to establish rapport between diverse people who are to work together than the cosy business of managing like-minded people who share similar interests.

Diversity is a fact, it is here to stay and learning how to value it, rather than ignoring it, is, quite simply, a no-brainer.

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