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Managing Diversity - 12 April 2011

When you opened this email and saw the photo on the left, you might have been a little surprised. It’s not an image frequently attached to a business newsletter. For a lot of us, the white headpiece is associated with racism and hatred, and you’d be in the majority if you linked that image with the Ku Klux Klan.

But people living in Spain are unlikely to relate that image with the KKK because the Spaniards see the white headpiece as a religious outfit demonstrating their faith. At Easter, they hold a festival called Semana Santa (Holy Week). A procession of penitents weaves through the streets, and the sinners wear the hoods for humility and to protect their identity.

Two very similar outfits; two very different intentions. That example, to me, is the ultimate illustration of diversity. Even people who look the same and dress the same can still end up being total opposites. One group seeks to destroy those they perceive as lower beings; the other group seeks forgiveness from a higher being.

At work, diversity is even more varied. Employees don’t just think differently; they also look and act in different ways. The common emotional reaction to this diversity is angst. At a superficial level, that angst could be due to ageism (“I don’t want to be managed by someone younger”) or race (“I don’t like working with Greeks”) or gender (“Women can’t do this kind of work”), or whatever other prejudice people possess.

At a deeper level, though, the angst stems from three main causes: convention, convenience, and cognition.

Convention: This is about habits. Employees feel threatened by a different colleague because they sense their usual practices and customs might change. They fear that some of their long-held workplace traditions are going to be abolished or altered.

Convenience: This could also be called preferences. It reflects the ways in which employees assume that a different colleague will become a nuisance. Some of the factors of most concern include potential threats to the ease, speed, and style of work.

Cognition: At the core of this is a lack of knowledge. The less people know about someone, the more they invent a story to support their set notions. And the less aware they are of how much in common they have with a different person, the more threatened they feel.

The key to managing diversity is to identify which of the three causes is fuelling the angst. Then, tailor your approach based upon the relevant cause. It’s not about making people love Gen Y, or love working with Greeks, or love the advancement of women. A lot of those biases and prejudices are ingrained and extremely difficult to change. Instead, it’s about unearthing the real source of your employees’ angst and dealing with that directly.

When referring to racism in the US, the Reverend Jesse Jackson once said: “America is not like a blanket - one piece of unbroken cloth. America is more like a quilt - many patches, many pieces, many colors, many sizes, all woven together by a common thread.”

Most people find the topic of diversity boring. What they don’t find so boring are the conversations and solutions designed to make them less anxious and more comfortable, irrespective of their biases and prejudices. At work, that’s the common thread.


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