Diversity and Cultural Awareness
What is Diversity?
There are two ways to think about the concept of diversity. On the one hand, we could think about the subject as being about bringing about better human understanding, tolerance and appreciation of other people – a general celebration of individuals from all cultures and types. On the other hand, we could think about the subject of diversity as being concerned with some of the particular or specific biases that we see between groups of many kinds in work and society. Unfortunately, both of these approaches have their associated problems in perspective and the danger of both broad views is for us to become overly personal and even judgmental about what is a very complex and important subject for all of us to think about quite seriously.
Depending upon how broadly you define the subject, let’s offer what might be perhaps seen as a more useful definition. Diversity describes all the ways in which people can be classed as different to one another. While this doesn’t usually mean minor differences (like physical height or eye color or particular tastes in housing or the type of car people drive) relatively similar issues can define a group very quickly and quite hard or stereotypical attitudes can develop as a result.
A simple if relatively trivial example (but one with which we are all familiar) might be our affiliation to a particular sporting team. Groups of people may therefore be different in following not only one chosen sport but one chosen team of individuals, and therefore, ‘wear’ their allegiance like a ‘badge of honor.’ As far as others are concerned (followers of other teams or non-sports fans alike) specific team supporters can be viewed collectively – e.g., devoted followers of ‘The Yankees,’ ‘United’ or ‘Thirty-sixers’ and are assigned particular ways of acting or behaving (both positive and negative). This can lead to very different behavior in these alternative affiliations, as well as various levels of intolerance, misunderstanding and lack of empathy (and even violence in some cases!).
Of course, as the world becomes a smaller place (or what some describe as a global village), differences between groups of people can become the focus of much greater attention. This may be driven by population growth, migration, economic downturns (leading to fewer jobs) or a range of other factors. In some countries like the United States or Germany or South Africa, ethnic differences in the overall population are significant and need to be managed mainly at a governmental level. For example, in the decade 2000-2010, the United States will see almost 50% of all net additions to the labor force coming from the ‘non white’ individuals. In addition, 65% of these will be female – this is very different to past experience and is therefore commanding lots of attention to tackle this change as well as possible.
The impact of individual differences between groups is often felt most strongly in the world of commercial enterprise. In recent years, it has become increasingly recognized and understood that an organization’s success rests heavily upon how well it harnesses the whole array of skills and experiences of its employees. In practice, this means how well it fosters widespread teamwork, bringing together people of very different backgrounds and styles to enhance creativity, the ability to solve problems more effectively, discover new approaches to old issues and realize many other benefits.
If individuals do not harness the strength of their internal diversity, they are effectively operating as if their hands were tied behind their backs. Of course, in this case, it is their thinking that is constrained. Equally, if the organization fails to take diversity seriously, it is even more constrained and may start to lose out commercially.
How can organizations benefit from diversity?
Extensive research from a wide variety of sources has identified six specific steps that are common to people and organizations that harness the benefits that can flow from diversity. These steps are seen to be the foundation in building and maintaining a strong and well coordinated team of people who are happy to work with each other to achieve greater levels of success. The progressive steps in building this pyramid are that:
- People and organizations need to be aware of the benefits that can flow from cultural diversity, and to recognize that a climate of mutual trust needs to be built and maintained. It is also recognized that this helps to foster growth and derive strength from the knowledge, skills and experience that different people bring.
- Minority groups need to feel included in the major decision-making processes of the organization, and that their views and ideas are genuinely valued and seen to be important.
- Different beliefs, stated views, actions and reactions are fully understood and are naturally tolerated and accepted as part of the rich overall ‘tapestry’ of human behavior.
- Warmth, sincerity and good will are shown to every individual and group without applying collective stereotypes, so that they feel high levels of mutual empathy.
- Groups (and the organization as a whole) permanently adapt and change where their beliefs or reactions are limiting, or are prone to bias or prejudice towards people that are different from the majority.
- Individuals and the organization as a whole persist in their efforts to recognize diversity and cultural awareness shortfalls, and commit to increasing overall knowledge, and to seek to reap the long term benefits from people’s differences rather than to merely celebrate their similarity.