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From the July, 1996 issue of
Managing Diversity

Redefining Diversity

By R. Roosevelt Thomas, Jr.

Every decade or so, people who concern themselves with the vigor of U.S. business organizations fasten onto a particular word or phrase that surfaces from a general, wide-ranging issue. For a time, the buzzword is extra hot.

Before long, the word begins to take on symbolic meaning: It serves as a simple verbal code for the complex problem from which it originated, but no one is really sure any longer what it actually means.

We have seen this happen recently with the word diversity. For the general public it has become verbal shorthand for a workforce that is multiracial, multicultural, and multiethnic - which means it comes preloaded with people's own individual perceptions and biases. For HR managers, it has become a kind of semantic umbrella that encompasses an assortment of HR programs. Senior management and managers of other functions tend to use the word more generally, but they too are essentially referring to workforce demographics.

I think it's time to look at diversity in a new light. In this broader version, diversity applies not only to a company's people concerns, but to many other critical areas as well.

What Does Diversity Mean?

Diversity refers to any mixture of items characterized by differences and similarities. Simple enough, on the surface. But like many simple notions, its implications are significant. If we are to put it into operation, we must fully understand what it means.

Diversity is not synonymous with differences, but encompasses differences and similarities. Because we are so accustomed to thinking of diversity in terms of workforce demographics, and equating it with the minority constituencies in that workforce, we tend to think diversity means the qualities that are different. Therefore, even when people expand the concept of diversity to include the whole range of strategic issues, they still tend to focus on the differences. But the definition that is put forth here includes not only differences but also similarities.

This is a crucial distinction. It means that when making managerial decisions, you no longer have the option of dealing only with the differences or similarities present in the situation; instead, you must deal with both simultaneously. One way of conceptualizing this is to think in terms of a macro-micro continuum. A micro perspective looks at the individual component and a macro perspective looks at the mixture. To get at the true nature of diversity (comprising differences and similarities) requires an ability to assume both perspectives simultaneously; the micro facilitates identification of differences, and the macro enhances the ability to see similarities.

Diversity refers to the collective (all-inclusive) mixture of differences and similarities along a given dimension. When you are dealing with diversity, you are focusing on the collective picture, not just pieces of it. To highlight this notion of mixture, visualize a jar of red jelly beans; now imagine adding some green and purple jelly beans. Many would believe that the green and purple jelly beans represent diversity. I suggest that the diversity instead is represented by the resultant mixture of red, green, and purple jelly beans.

It is easy to see these jelly beans as a metaphor for employees. Of course, it works equally well as a metaphor for any other aspect of the organization that you might be concerned with: It could as easily represent a mixture of product lines, functions, marketing strategies, operating philosophies.

The component elements in diversity mixtures can vary, and so a discussion of diversity must specify the dimensions in question. The components of a diversity mixture can be people, concepts, concrete items, or abstractions. If you are reflecting on the many ways your employees can vary (by race, gender, age, education, sexual orientation, geographic origin, or employment tenure), that's a mixture whose components are people, individuals categorized along multiple dimensions.

But consider your colleague who is struggling to create an environment where various functions (marketing, research, manufacturing, and finance) can do their best work. In that mixture, the components are abstractions known as organizational units or functions. One may argue that functions are composed of individuals, which is true, but the general manager of multiple functions does not experience this as a mixture of people but rather as a mixture of organizational units.

So it is no longer sufficient to say "I'm working on diversity issues;" you must also specify which dimension you are dealing with. Otherwise you are very likely to fall into a fruitless discussion of apples and oranges.

Diversity Management

The Diversity Management Process is versatile enough to deal with any of these problems. It is also powerful enough to deal with more than one at the same time. Once you have mastered the use of this tool, you can quickly apply it to other situations:

STEP 1: Get clear on the problem. What changes are occurring in the environment your company does business in, and how important are they? What do you need to do to succeed in your organizational mission, and what is interfering with your achieving success?

This is not as easy as it sounds. Being able to see clearly, without prejudgments or personal bias, what is happening while you are in the midst of it is an important skill. Future thinking - being able to understand what you see and project its implications - is one hallmark of leaders.

STEP 2: Analyze the diversity mixture. The next step is to analyze the set of circumstances you are dealing with. Your goal is to be able to define the situation in terms of a diversity mixture. What are the elements of the mixture at hand? This may be probably is - a new concept for you.

For example, if your concern is a mixture of products lines, they may be similar (or different) in the mechanisms used to manufacture them, in distribution channels, in profitability ratios, in customer bases, in development costs, and so on.

STEP 3: Check for diversity tension. Ask yourself two questions: Am I seeing tension here as a result of this diversity mixture? And if so, do I need to do anything about it? Diversity tension refers to the conflict, stress, and strain associated with the interactions of the elements of the mixture. Tension of some sort often accompanies a diversity mixture - but not always. When it is present, diversity tension is usually easy to spot.

The real question is, does it require attention? Not all tension is bad. "Good" tension produces new ideas, new products, new processes. Good tension acts like fine grit sandpaper, polishing rough ideas into a gleaming finished product. Tension is a problem only when it interferes with your ability to achieve objectives.

Counterproductive tension is usually obvious. Dysfunctions abound: Interpersonal relationships disintegrate into constant squabbling; petty rivalries between departments end up paralyzing work; functions and work groups that are nominally collaborating are in fact sabotaging each other. Even when goodwill is intact, the complex nature of the situation can create tensions that cripple productivity.

STEP 4: Review action options. Your task at this point is to dispassionately review what is being done to address your primary problems and decide how well that approach is working. If it is not working well it's time to try something else.

To help managers find that "something else," I developed a structure called the Diversity Paradigm, which is the heart of the diversity management process (see box). Once managers have figured out the essence of the problem, they can review the eight action options and choose one (or more) that seems to offer the best hope of solving it.

The Diversity Paradigm's Action Options

Option Description
Include/exclude Include by expanding the number and variability of mixture components. Or exclude by minimizing the number and variability of mixture components.
DenyMinimize mixture diversity by explaining it away.
Assimilate Minimize mixture diversity by insisting the "minority" componenets conform to the norms of the dominant factor.
SuppressMinimize mixture diversity by removing it from your consciousness - by assigning it to the subconscious.
IsolateAddress diversity by including and setting "different" mixture components off to the side.
TolerateAddress diversity by fostering a room-for-all attitude, albeit with limited superficial interactions among the mixture components.
Build relationshipsAddress diversity by fostering quality relationships - characterized by acceptance and understanding - among the components.
Foster mutual adaptationAddress diversity by fostering mutual adaptation in which all components change somewhat for the sake of achieving common objectives.

R. Roosevelt Thomas, Jr. is president of The American Institute for Managing Diversity, Atlanta, Ga., and the author of two books, Beyond Race and Gender and Redefining Diversity. This article is adapted from Redefining Diversity, published by AMACOM, a division of American Management Association.

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