Diversity Means They Will Be Different

I’ve been a proponent of diversity throughout my life. This has manifested in a variety of ways, in both my personal life and career. Often “diversity” is used to connote a particular ratio of the two genders or racial representation. I have a broader definition of “diversity.”

In my view, diversity encases many more attributes than gender and skin tone, and a celebration and/or honoring of those differences. Many attributes are used to sort people out, to place them in categories, often with ideas of better or lesser. Physical ability, general appearance, cultural background, birth language, economic condition, religious orientation, sexual preference, and countless other attributes are used in addition to gender and race.

Many years ago, I was consulting with someone who was responsible for a corporate-wide diversity plan. My involvement in the diversity plan itself was slight; I was doing some of what is called “shadow consulting” for this project, but I was more actively consulting on some of my client’s other projects.

As my client (a white, able-bodied male), was working with the senior management of the corporation (predominately white, able-bodied males), I was pleased to feel the sincerity of this group to create an authentically diverse company. Insights were expressed in the workshops. Genuine plans of action were embraced. And then it was time for implementation……

At one point in my conversations with my client during the implementation, I blurted out a realization: oh my gosh, they don’t understand that the “diverse” population will be different! And that realization has presented itself over and over again as I’ve remained a consultant with this company. So often, those in power are trying to get the diverse-other to be just like them! They hire someone who is different and feel pleased with themselves to add to the diversity balance, and then try to mold that diverse-other into being the same as the majority.

Just the other day, I had a consultation with a high-level woman in this same company, providing me with a fresh example. She told me that once again (for the seventh, tenth, twentieth, who knows? time) her male boss has given her feedback on something that can only be considered “style” in the way she approaches making presentations. While her boss has one opinion, many others compliment her on this style and try to emulate it. Here’s the suggestion I made for her response when he next gives her this feedback, which undoubtedly he will.

Her attitude must be upbeat and friendly, so please imagine that demeanor with these words, as there is no sarcasm nor defensiveness. “Well, I offer an alternative. I AM an alternative. Each time you’ve given me that feedback, I’ve taken it seriously. I’ve considered and experimented with different approaches. But here’s something you might not be aware of: each time I make a presentation, people give me very positive feedback — people I know as well as people I don’t know. In a company as big as ours, I think it’s important that we all get to see different styles because some people relate more to me, while others relate more to _____, and still others relate more to ____. We’re all different, which I think is wonderful.” (The ____ are names of specific persons in their company who have different presentation styles from her and from each other.)

A “Diversity Plan” usually contains general ideas, broad concepts, and well-intended actions. However, that “different person” sitting in front of you is very specific. The platitudes of the general ideas need to be practiced in kindness and curiosity and flexibility in real-time conversations. Think of what a different interaction it would be between these two persons, if the boss were curious about how she saw her style, or if he engaged with her to understand and accept her differences. But, instead, he wants her to conform and be like him — the exact opposite of honoring diversity.

So, if you embrace the idea of diversity, remember, when you are face to face with the diverse others, they will be different!