I’m excited about my Diversity meetup at Microsoft Ignite, and I wanted to share some thoughts about it in advance.
The term or word prejudice comes from the Latin prae + judicium meaning to try in advance. Prejudice is literally a pre-judgement about the characteristics and desirability of a person or a thing. Everyone has their heuristics about how the world works, but this can be dangerous when it slips into prejudices, and often we cannot see what these prejudices are.
I have been puzzling over the statement that I hear sometimes: I’m already diverse, I don’t need to worry about diversity because I never judge people on their race, gender or beliefs. I don’t think that’s true, and I think people can have a diversity myopia, which means that they believe that they place themselves beyond seeing differences in people, as if that makes them more logical somehow. My argument instead is that, by seeing, valuing and understanding differences, it gives us another superpower or another lens by which to understand situations, people, and ourselves. This is the true mark of a leader and it would make us better leaders to be able to see, understand and value diversity. However, we can’t hold the view consistently that we ‘don’t see differences’ and then claim to be already sensitive to diversity. If you don’t see, understand or value differences, then you can’t be sensitive to diversity, either.
Leaders who understand diversity, prejudice and the dynamics of change, will manage them better in themselves and in other people. We all experience work situations where our professional requirements, demands and responsibilities conflict with our ethics and values. The resolution of these situations require skills that are not part of any job descriptions: they require real thought. These are opportunities for reflexive leadership: self-reflection and deep thought, which is quite at odds with the way that we normally skate on the surface of our busy lives (Alvesson, Blom, and Sveningsson, 2016).
Diversity Myopia can be evidenced by the statement: “I see everyone purely in terms of merit and I don’t see their characteristics.”
To succeed, leaders need to be skilful in recognizing and managing diversity, as well as valuing it. Davidson (2011) puts forward this concept of leveraging differences to help us to navigate the complexities of diversity. Leveraging Differences is the ability to use people’s distinctiveness, uniqueness, competencies and perspectives in order to make the organization more effective. How can we leverage differences?
Seeing the Differences
Firstly, we have to see the difference. One of the signs of diversity myopia is the claim that one does not see differences. If you cannot see differences, how can you be sensitive to them? Some of the differences are obvious, such as language, sex or ethnicity. Other ways, such as specific disabilities which are not obvious, are not easy to see.
Understanding the Differences
It’s important to understand the differences in order to leverage them successfully, and to make people comfortable as part of your team. We can do this in all sorts of ways: for example, I have spent this weekend reading about religions with a focus on Islam and Zoroastrianism (Mazdayasna) in order to try and educate myself, and understand them better. I am not claiming to be an expert in either religion, but I learned a lot that I did not know before.
If we do not try to understand differences, then we are working on prejudices and over-simplified stereotypes. This means that we can be working under a confirmation bias, so self-awareness never impinges on our consciousness to hint that we are anything other than ‘diverse-aware’.
Understanding diversity can be transformative, and it results from an active and sustained seeing, understanding and respecting differences. There is no way that we can tick a box and state that we are ‘diverse-aware’ now. It is an ongoing process, and it is a long-term relationship which changes your life.
Priorities can change because you understand people’s priorities better. It means that you can start to care more deeply about other issues that others care about; the environment, for example. For me personally, it has given me a wider vision of the world that I live in, and it means that I have become a lot calmer about transient problems that I might otherwise have been. It also means that I can step away from people and problems that are simply toxic, because I have found other things to care about, and to spend my energy on. The thing with diversity is that it is amost addictive; it gives me more to care about, and I want to know more, so I learn more and that gives me more, bigger things to care about.
This is the personal changes that this has brought for me. What can you do in order to learn more about Diversity?
- Be curious and learn
- Be an active listener
- Be prepared to have the humility and self-awareness to get things wrong
- Be prepared to work at conflicts that matter, and to see them through, even if it challenges your core beliefs.
- Be prepared to think that what other people have said is true.
Rethink the data outside of a confirmation bias. I think that this is missing from a lot of the dialogue that I see on Twitter, for example. Genuine grievances, such as the MeToo campaign, can be dismissed under the guise ‘that doesn’t happen everywhere’ or even disbelief disguised as a statement ‘if a woman really had been attacked, then she would not do this / go there / do that, would she?’ Inquiry and thoughtfulness can help us to be more open and understanding in communication.
What does diversity myopia mean for the business?
For the business, diversity can help us to understand our business processes and systems. It can help businesses to remain innovative and engaged with customers and team members, because the veil of having diversity-myopia has been lifted.
Seeing, understanding and valuing differences is challenging, but it can help us to move in directions that we didn’t see before.
I am learning a lot, and I will continue to do so for the rest of my life. I look forward to your thoughts and comments.
Alvesson, M., Blom, M. and Sveningsson, S., 2016. Reflexive Leadership: Organising in an imperfect world. Sage.
Davidson, M.N., 2011. The end of diversity as we know it: Why diversity efforts fail and how leveraging difference can succeed. Berrett-Koehler Publishers.