This title offers some practical advice for managers with an interest in valuing and deriving value from diversity in the workplace
For managers with an interest in managing diversity more effectively, achieving your goal might be much closer than you think. Although managing diversity has become a major focus of professional and scholarly attention over the past couple of decades there is nothing new about diversity itself. Regardless of how recent your move into management you already have plenty of experience of diversity in the workplace on which to draw.
Managing diversity effectively begins with tapping into this experience and taking steps to deepen your understanding of the diversity in your particular workplace setting – and then developing the potential in yourself and others to make the most of it.
On the other hand, the challenges of managing diversity can seem daunting if you try to begin with the ‘fairness and compliance’ perspective which tends to dominate discussion of the topic. For sure it is part of every manager’s role to understand their obligations under the law and the implications for workplace practice but these aspects make far more sense when anchored to an appreciation of the diversity in your particular setting and the potential business value.
Taking time to examine the ‘here and now’ of the diversity around you helps develop a practical understanding of the value of diversity in your workplace. It also creates helpful context for dealing with the fairness and compliance aspects of managing diversity.
Exploring individual diversity
Understanding diversity begins with an acknowledgement that everyone is unique and brings to their work a unique set of beliefs, attitudes, background and experiences. This is diversity at the level of the individual.
It’s easy to lose sight of the extent to which diversity exists in your team when your focus has been on the team as a whole and achieving business goals. There is often a tendency to ‘overcome’ difference in the interests of maintaining progress.
A way into exploring the diversity within your team is this: next time there is disagreement on an important topic, take the time to explore what is driving the diverse views. Differences of opinion are often rooted in people’s values, beliefs and prior experiences. Working collaboratively to explore why people think the way they do can lead to the emergence of new ideas, creative solutions and answers to solution-resistant problems. This does not require intrusive questioning into a person’s private thoughts and personal background; it simply requires genuine interest in what others can contribute and willingness to suspend judgement for a while.
As an example, the general manager of a professional services firm was concerned by the low ratio of successful proposals to total submissions made, but initially dismissed the argument put by one of the longest serving consultants about why the ratio was so low. However, encouraged by peers, the consultant persisted in putting his case and it turned out that what he had learned in an earlier career in the IT industry about properly ‘qualifying’ an opportunity before you even consider writing a proposal would make all the difference in this situation.
A useful technique for exploring difference of opinion and tapping into more of the diversity available to you is explained in the Management Insights title ‘Credulous Listening’. Credulous listening is also a good way to explore workplace diversity associated with various demographic groupings.
The demographics of diversity
Diversity is also associated with demographic groupings which arise out of factors such as gender ethnicity nationality religion age and so on. We tend to make assumptions about individuals based on their membership of a particular demographic grouping. Whilst such assumptions might be a useful starting point they should always be made available for testing against reality and exploration of new approaches.
By way of example shortly after returning to work from a year’s maternity leave a middle manager submitted an application for a newly vacant general management role. It was assumed that she intended to become full-time again after working three days a week for several years. However this was not her plan. Her application included a detailed explanation about how she intended to meet all the obligations of the role whilst still working three days a week. This included her proposal for being a fully contributing member of the senior management team. Her application was successful and over time she influenced dramatic changes in the way the rest of the senior management team worked. Each achieved improved work-life balance and the organisation’s performance improved measurably.
A useful way to check your own capacity to deal with diversity associated with particular demographic groupings is to reflect on your reactions when particular groups are the focus of conversation or when you find yourself carrying assumptions about a particular group. Using the case above what were your thoughts about a female part-timer in a general management role?
Making the most of diversity at work
For managers with an interest in valuing and deriving value from diversity in the workplace here are some things to try:
Acknowledge that diversity is ever-present in that every individual is unique. And be ready to learn something new about those around you.
When ‘alikeness’ is top of mind – for example ‘we all have an engineering background’ – make a conscious effort to also look for the diversity in a group.
Take the lead in examining your own beliefs and biases to bring to the surface some of the reasons you think and act the way you do. You could refer to the Management Insights title ‘Understanding People’s Behaviour at Work’ for more on how to do this.
Experiment with some alternatives to your habitual ways of operating and observe how this changes the dynamics of groups you are part of.
Create a context in which diversity is seen as a source of strength to be built on not as a problem or inhibitor.
Diversity is good for organisations and good for business. Research has shown that a more diverse workforce increases effectiveness and productivity. Diversity creates opportunities to discover new ways of thinking and alternative approaches to doing things. Diversity can be a distinct advantage in problem-solving and decision-making especially when there is a need for creativity and innovation. What could you do to better understand the diversity around you at work?
Looking for more ideas?
For readers with an interest in extending their reading about the topics covered in this article the following articles are available on the website:
About the Author
Dr Janet Fitzell is an independent organisational consultant and facilitator specialising in organisational development and team dynamics through her company FourLeaf Consulting Pty Ltd (http://www.fourleaf.com.au/). She facilitates strategic planning and team development undertakes organisational reviews using a collaborative approach coaches individuals and teams and generally helps organisations to build sustainable futures.
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