Everyone is talking about diversity nowadays. Every organisation is looking to be as diverse as possible. It is seen as a commercial success factor and is also often worn as a badge of honour. Diversity has already been written into many company guidelines and policies. In one wording or another, we read that diversity leads to better results, increases profits and secures innovation.
And this is all true, of course. Yet, I often find that the claims being made are still too vague. It feels like maybe companies only start championing diversity when they can put a number on its added value. But diversity ought to be much more than that. Diversity is first and foremost about us and how we all get along. It’s about genuinely turning our differences into something truly positive. And, in my experience, that doesn’t just happen by itself.
Living diversity is not as easy as it seems
What do you do if an introverted colleague has trouble making her opinion heard in team meetings? Or if a PhD student who is just starting to write his or her thesis can’t express himself in English as well as the rest of the group? Do we honestly give equal value to someone’s arguments if that person can’t speak the language fluently yet; do we take the opinion of a young recruit as seriously as that of a colleague who has been with the company for much longer; do we put the same amount of trust in an employee even if he is sometimes absent due to a mental illness? Would an employee get promoted to a managerial position even if she is a single parent with a baby?
I think we would love to be able to answer all these questions with a resounding “yes”. But if we’re being honest with ourselves, we know that there have been times when this didn’t work out. We really would like for different personality types, lifestyles and career aspirations to be equally recognised. But sometimes we struggle in making this a reality. When people are different, it can disrupt our routine. Diversity can be like sand in the gears; it causes friction, especially in those cases where opinions would otherwise be so conveniently aligned. But maybe the solution isn’t to remove the sand, but to rebuild the gears to make them less fragile.
Diversity managment requires effort
In short, just because there are people with different backgrounds in a team doesn’t mean that this diversity will automatically lead to something positive. It takes a joint effort, patience, willingness and, in my opinion, empathy. The decisive factor in this is management. Managers have to give space to different opinions, value them, and let each person find their own place. We don’t need managers to delegate for us. We need managers to moderate for us.
But, if we are to achieve greater diversity, we first have to take a good look at ourselves. How do we perceive others? How do we listen to them? All too easily, we find ourselves falling back into learned patterns and rehearsed group dynamics. We have unconscious perception mechanisms that are immediately triggered when we meet other people. We can’t just turn that off. But we have to realise that it often makes us too quick to judge others, which leads us to give some people opportunities and others not – in job interviews or in project meetings, for example. This is exactly the kind of thing we need to think about.
So what does Diversity now mean?
In a diversity training session which I took part in recently, organised by the Berlin Senate’s Office against Discrimination, I was asked to go ahead and write on a flipchart what diversity means to me. I couldn’t make up my mind. My first impulse was to write: “Diversity leads to better results in teams.” Or: “Diversity means accepting other perspectives.” But in the end, I went with: “Diversity means not putting others into pigeonholes.” Because only then, even by just starting to realise that, can we actually achieve greater diversity. And ultimately benefit from it.
Silvia Zerbe, HZB Diversity Officer
Translation: Peter Gregg
This blog post is part of a series for the European Diversity Month in May. In the following weeks we will publish blog posts on different aspects of this topic. You will find the posts, as soon as they are published, here.