Where real diversity comes from (first appeared in InfoWorld)

Like Tweet Pin it Share Share Email

It’s re-run time again in KJR-land. I had a higher priority this weekend than writing a new column – we celebrated my wife’s birthday. I’m sure you’ll understand.

And anyway, the re-run, which ran in May of 1998, is just as timely and relevant now as when I first published it in InfoWorld.

– Bob

A few columns ago I mentioned a science fiction story titled “The Political Engineer” and asked if anyone remembered the authors. Patrick Berry remembered reading it in an anthology of stories by Cyril Kornbluth and Frederik Pohl titled Critical Mass.

Thanks, Patrick.

Lots of IS Survivalists expressed their appreciation for that column. Many see themselves as apolitical engineers treated poorly by politicized corporate cultures. So here’s a question: What are you going to do about it?

You have three choices: leave, learn enough about corporate politics to avoid being victimized, or suffer. Pick one.

The problem my correspondents described — nontechnical managers making technical decisions without involving the engineers — has nothing to do with politics, though. Not the good kind (figuring out how to move forward when legitimately different points of view collide) nor the bad (back-stabbing and hidden agendas).

While it may seem to be politics, the problem is our natural tendency, as human beings, to trust and associate with those most like us. It’s a lack of appreciation for diversity.

Think of the executive ranks of your company. Can you think of anyone who’s there without any visible achievements that seem to warrant it? Think about the fast-trackers who aren’t executives, but who obviously will be. What is it about them that makes them fast-trackers? Ability? Maybe.

In many businesses there’s a sort of executive club. Some people belong to it. Others don’t. Its members can spot each other from a distance and say, “Yes, he’s one of us.” Nonmembers mistakenly call it the old boys’ network, but it’s nothing of the kind. It’s a club and you’re either a member or you’re not.

It’s depressingly like a high school clique, where you know who’s in it and you know you’re not. I suspect sociologists have written oodles of research papers on this subject (if not, it’s fertile soil for some Ph.D. candidate) but we don’t need research papers. We need a manual. Nobody has ever written a step-by-step instruction manual for joining the clique. (Memo to IDG Books: Publish Joining Cliques for Dummies.)

That’s why so much of today’s diversity training is completely ineffectual. While discrimination based on race and ethnicity still happens (and is inexcusable) far more comes from distrusting people with different thought patterns than skin color. As a friend put it, lots of companies hire and promote people of all races, creeds and backgrounds, as long as they think alike. Real diversity comes from differing points of view, perspectives, priorities, and values. Valuing real diversity is the antithesis of being part of the clique.

Did I say “the clique”? I meant “a clique,” because there’s more than one. Techies have cliques, too. So do most other identifiable groups. If you’re part of a clique, you probably don’t even recognize it. That changes nothing.

How well do you look at the world from the other person’s perspective when the other person doesn’t think the way you do? Do you try to see the world through her eyes, or do you take the easy way out, applying a convenient label that trivializes or demonizes a perspective that makes you uncomfortable?

“Aw, that’s just politics!” means, “You didn’t make this decision the way I would have,” just as much as “They’re just techies — they don’t think the way we do” does.

It’s time for all of us to appreciate real diversity — and that means listening to those least like ourselves, discovering how it is they perceive the world.

After all, listening to members of your own groups is a whole lot like listening to yourself.

How much will you learn doing that?

Comments (5)

  • Still relevant.

    I like to think of it as the tribal mentality, honed over generations and millennia. Somehow, we can recognize our tribe even without having met them before.

  • There is definitely an emotional connection and kinship factor that can impede diversity, but those dynamics can also be the means of transcending clique expectations, norms, and shared history. But I think another challenge is for managers to be trained in how to manage those whose ways of doing things is different than what the manager could ever understand.

    Otherwise, how would a white male manager ever be able to manage women, blacks, Latinos, Jews, … or even techies? In particular without specific and on-going training, how is a white male manager going to know how to trust the process and outcomes of those he cannot understand, despite his best and most sincere efforts? And, just as important, not having those skills can lead to organizational dysfunction or even failure.

    And, without trust, how can there be fair evaluations, and an environment of diversity with mutual respect? Managers could look at the high performance business that is the Golden State Warriors, if they doubt an environment of diversity and mutual respect can’t generate sustaining excellence.

  • Certainly is a timely rerun, and just as appropriate today as when originally run.

  • Very well put…diversity of thinking is vital…reminds me of this, which is always will be, on the wall of my office:

    “…unlike physical gravity, which results from the curvature of space and time that occurs in the presence of mass, organizational gravity results from the curvature of preference that occurs in the presence of a mass of like-minded employees.”

    Bob Lewis
    Keep the Joint Running

Comments are closed.