Diversity And Leadership

The dictionary defines diversity as “The fact or quality of being diverse; difference. A point or respect in which things differ. Variety or multiformity.” Diverse is defined as “Differing one from another. Made up of distinct characteristics, qualities, or elements.”

While this definition stresses difference and distinctness, current conversations about diversity in corporations stress the reduction of differences, and the acknowledgment of differences often seems held to be wrong, discriminatory, or somehow undemocratic.

Recent approaches to diversity in business are reviewed in the book The New Leaders: Guidelines on Leadership Diversity in America, by Ann M. Morrison (1992, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco). Morrison researched diversity efforts in 16 private and public organizations “to identify practices that obstruct and those that encourage the advancement of white women and people of color into the executive ranks.” The stated purpose of Morrison’s study was to identify the “best practices” for promoting white women and people of color, and to offer a plan for diversity strategies in companies.

Morrison’s study is well done and her approaches and hypotheses are backed by substantial bibliographic research. She discusses four historical approaches to the “problem” of diversity: the golden rule approach, the assimilation approach, the righting the wrongs approach, the culture-specific approach, and the multicultural approach The first four of these have been attempted in the past with poor rates of success:

  • The Golden Rule: The only important differences are individual differences, so race, ethnicity, and gender are ignored.
  • Assimilation: People need to adapt to the prevailing organizational culture and give up whatever culture they bring.
  • Righting Wrongs: People/groups who have historically been mistreated should be given compensatory advantages
  • Culture-Specific: People are educated about other cultures so they can adjust their behavior

The fifth approach, termed Multicultural, emphasizes increasing people’s consciousness and appreciation of differences between groups as well as representing the uniqueness of each individual. Thus the Multicultural approach combines features of the other approaches and posits that the organization must adapt to the changing profile of its workforce. It is the Multicultural approach that has received the most attention and that is widely considered the “best” approach to the “problem” of diversity in the 90s, especially after the publication in 1987 of Workforce 2000, a report by the Hudson Institute that documented dramatic changes in the demographics of the American workforce. Among this report’s findings were that by the year 2000, only 15 percent of the workforce will be native white men. The remaining 85% will be composed of native white women (42 percent), native nonwhite women (13 percent), native nonwhite men (7 percent), immigrant men (13 percent), and immigrant women (9 percent).

Taken for granted in discussions of diversity is that it is an issue. That the existence of differences, of race, gender, ethnicity, culture, color, etc., necessarily will pose problems to be resolved or, in the optimistic management argot of the 80s, opportunities to be mined. Certainly there is ample evidence in the history of the United States and of the world to suggest that these differences are problematic, and will, if ignored, lead to conflict, dissension, and even outright war.

What is missed in these discussions is the possibility that diversity is a paradigm, an underlying system of patterns and assumptions that shapes and limits thinking and that determines, in large part, our perceptions and experience of the world. If diversity is, in fact, a paradigm rather than a given, fixed, reality, then the approaches outlined above will be seen to be variations on a theme, all within the paradigm.

A detailed discussion of paradigms is beyond the scope of this note, and in any case can be found in the seminal work of Thomas Kuhn (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, University of Chicago Press, 1962) and in Joel Barker’s video “Discovering the Future: The Business of Paradigms” (Charthouse Learning Corporation) and James Burke’s video “Changing Knowledge, Changing Reality” (BBC TV). For this discussion it is sufficient to refer to Barker’s statement that “[Paradigms] establish boundaries…then go on to tell us how to be successful by solving problems within these boundaries.” In other words, a paradigm gives us a particular view of the world, and then rewards us for staying within that view by affording us successes that, simultaneously, offer personal gratification and reinforces the correctness of the view. It is easy to see how, in not too long a time, the paradigm would come to be viewed as “the way it is.”

It is the contention of this note that current thinking on diversity, as exemplified by Morrison’s book, exemplifies perfectly what happens when a paradigm goes unexamined. All the thinking that follows from the unexamined paradigm may be logical, rational, and supported by evidence, yet when viewed from another paradigm be seen to be self-fulfilling prophecy. When diversity is taken as a given reality, a fact of life to which companies must adapt, then the options “ignore, adapt, compensate, adjust, celebrate” make perfect sense. In fact, these are the options everyone learned early in life we must choose from when we cannot alter what we are confronting.

If, however, diversity is a paradigm, that is if diversity is not the way it is, but rather a possible way it is, then we have far greater freedom and far greater power with which to deal with the issues that diversity approaches attempt to deal with.

In our work we focus especially on the issue of leadership. It is our view that the paradigm of diversity emphasizes differences and issues that have nothing intrinsically to do with leadership, but the emphasis on which significantly reduces the field of possibility for leadership in the organization. It could be argued, in fact, that it is in the area of leadership that the paradigm of diversity has the most limiting effect, focusing attention as it does on issues such as race, gender, ethnicity, culture, and color, which have been shown repeatedly to be unrelated to leadership.

It is in this last point that one can see most clearly what Barker refers to as “the paradigm effect” or “paradigm blindness.” — Paradigms cause us to select from the world those data that best fit the paradigm and to ignore the rest — thus no amount of positive research on women and leadership, blacks and leadership, etc., “convinces” top management to move women and blacks into leadership positions. No amount of statistics showing that affirmative action does not significantly cost white men their jobs allays the fear behind the equation of affirmative action with unfair hiring and promotion practices.

It is our view that traditional approaches to diversity amount to pendulum swings within an unquestioned and unchallenged paradigm. While there is an argument to be made for pendulum swings in cases of past injustice, logic and past experience demonstrate unequivocally that such swings have no lasting or long-term positive effect. Said otherwise, no change within a paradigm has any effect upon the paradigm.

In our work on diversity, we stress the design, implementation, and execution of a new paradigm for leadership, a paradigm that is race/gender/ethnicity/culture/color-free, or more accurately, paradigm in which race, gender, ethnicity, culture, and color are transparent, in much the same way as where a person lives or whether they have a dog is transparent on the job. In this paradigm there will be a new field in which to design leadership that can bring the company to breakthrough possibilities and new futures.

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