Six reasons why we need a new concept of workplace diversity


Diversity is one of those topics which is just ripe for a paradigm shift. Here’s why:

1. The current paradigm of diversity (in the Western world at least) is the result of the wars of religion in Europe which saw two centuries of bloodshed between Catholics and Protestants. The resulting agreement can be expressed in Voltaire’s dictum: ‘I do not agree with what you say but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.’ Diversity was tolerated, but meaningful dialogue was discouraged because it could be intrusive and lead to conflict.

2. In the US, the discourse around workplace diversity got tangled up in the Civil Rights movement. As a result, much of the management literature focused on thinks like rights, racism, compliance with anti-discrimination legislation, and quotas. Understandably this provoked resistance and accusations of tokenism. Some thought leaders in this space, like Dr Roosevelt Thomas, are trying to take the diversity debate into a more positive space.

3. Much management thinking until recently has been based on the machine metaphor. Even systems thinking has been based on the idea that you can understand the workplace like a vast complicated machine in which many parts work together to churn out widgets. Diversity is anathema to machines. What is valued is standardisation, uniformity, consistency. Employees are expected to be standard cogs in the machine which can be easily replaced. The things which make them different – whether race, gender, religion, sexual orientation or artistic gifts, were expected to be kept at home and had no place at work.

4. In a time of rapid, chaotic change, we are shifting to a new business metaphor: complex adaptive systems borrow concepts from the natural world. Here diversity is an asset – indeed it’s vital for survival. It has been said that one of the reasons General Motors went under is that its board was made up of middle-aged white men who all thought alike. Agile organisations will value the unique gifts that each person brings.

5. In society as a whole, the old model of tolerance is breaking down. When there is economic pressure and high unemployment, the “other” is no longer tolerated and racism rears its ugly head. Most people working in this space recognise that we need to move beyond tolerance to engagement, to help people overcome their ignorance of the ‘other’ and see the common humanity.

6. To borrow a concept from the world of complex adaptive systems, the new model for organisations, teams, even society as a whole, will be coherence. Instead of defining boundaries and treating everyone within those boundaries as the same, we will define some core concepts and then have a welcome diversity of people who cohere around those concepts.

This post was originally written in response to a discussion on workplace diversity in the Australian Human Resources Institute Linkedin group.

Mike Lowe
Helping individuals and teams get into flow

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