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Workplace diversity

It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognise, accept, and celebrate those differences ”. - Audre Lorde

I detest racialism, because I regard it as a barbaric thing, whether it comes from a black man or a white" - Nelson Mandela


Ask almost any workgroup to identify disruptive changes likely to take place in the future, and they’re sure to mention the rise in diversity and demographic shifts occurring across the world. Countries, workplaces and marketplaces are becoming more diverse. This trend will undoubtedly continue, and this can represent either a stumbling block or an opportunity for an organisation. Cultural anthropologist, Kate Fox said the following (In her book ' Watching the English '): 

The principal effect of globalisation, as far as I can tell, has been an increase in nationalism and tribalism, a proliferation of struggles for independence, devolution and self-determination and a resurgence of concern about ethnicity and cultural identity in almost all parts of the world ”.


People don’t always see eye to eye. Sometimes, because they see the same thing through different eyes.


Our inbuilt beliefs, stereotyping, perceptions, prejudices and bias filters influence how we relate to others from different cultures, ethnicities, religions, belief systems, social classes, genders, sexual preferences, ages and generations, personalities, education levels, languages, lifestyles, thinking styles, physical and mental abilities, attitudes, values, motives, temporal and other orientations..

Recent mass migrations of displaced peoples, campaigns such as ‘ Black Lives Matter ’, and the imposition of racial quotas in workplaces in some countries, have led to enormous resentment, fear and hostility. Harnessing diversity is a big challenge for organisations.

Positives and Possibilities

Psychology Professor Richard Crisp has examined how positive creativity and progress may result from culture ‘clashes’, and how a protective, aggressive response to a threat from an outside group can be beneficially substituted by non-dual, coalition thinking that stimulates positive forward movement.

Social scientist Andre Laurant, Emeritus Professor of Organisational Behavior at INSEAD discovered a fascinating phenomenon. In brief: the best teams rely on the differences and uniqueness of their members to create something better than can be produced by a monocultural (conforming) team.

But people in a diverse team who fear difference and put their energy into seeing differences negatively, produce little of note, and become one of the worst performing teams.

Diversity Study Table

Low-performing teams cannot release the positive energy required to trust, collaborate, and wholeheartedly bring their skills to bear on work outputs, assume accountability for tasks and relationship building, let alone agree on goals and purpose! A three-year Google research project has discovered that successful teams (who see past diversity and respect each other and each other’s views) “ cultivated 2 things which help bonding – conversational turn-taking and empathy ”.

This implies that stories shared across generations, cultures, ethnic groups and all the other diversities (even departments in organisations) can act as an incredible bonding agent – and help groups shift from low to high performers. At an individual level, if you’re having difficulty with a person who is very different to you, try putting yourself in their shoes, imagining their fears, problems, challenges, and needs (perhaps as a meditation) so that you can build empathy before your next encounter. (Notice that there is a sequence of events and learning opportunities at play:

  • Firstly to discern where your relating difficulty is coming from, realise that emotions, unconscious beliefs, and past conditioning through experiences will dominate conscious logic and reasoning

  • Secondly, you need to understand your own feelings and responses (self-awareness will help you to identify, name and control negative responses

  • Thirdly, the acts of imagining - literally swapping places - building connects, rapport and empathy come from deliberate steps to overcome prejudices - meditations, stories, experiences.

  • Fourthly, habit-forming repetition (actions and thoughts which repattern neural pathways)

The most diverse teams can become the best-performing teams.

‘Business professors Cristian Deszö of the University of Maryland and David Ross of Columbia University studied the effect of gender diversity on the top firms in Standard & Poor's Composite 1500 list, a group designed to reflect the overall U.S. equity market. First, they examined the size and gender composition of firms' top management teams from 1992 through 2006. Then they looked at the financial performance of the firms. In their words, they found that, on average, ‘female representation in top management leads to an increase of $42 million in firm value‘.

Moving Forward

So what can organisations do to move forward?

Raise awareness and encourage the sharing of exchanges and stories within groups where there is diversity. One way is to get a group to read and then discuss a book. I recommend Black Like Me by Texan journalist John Howard Griffin. A white man, Griffin darkened his skin to assume the identity of a black man, spent six weeks hitchhiking and travelling on Greyhound buses through the ‘deep south’, and relates his experiences in his book.

Watch and have a conversation about Jane Elliott’s video-taped diversity experiment (Eye of the Storm), started with grade school children in her native Iowa. Immediately after the death of Martin Luther King she split her class into ‘blue-eyed’ and ‘brown-eyed’, gave and withheld privileges, treated one group as superior. In an amazingly short space of time, she created a ‘racial’ divide, observed how the learning performance of the ‘inferior’ group dramatically declined. When the groups were switched, the same result occurred!

Mixed-group discussions are helpful – where participants make collages or share early memories of things like which room in the house was its heart, the meals time experience, family activities, schoolyard experiences .... which typically leads to talking about music, movie, meal preferences and favourites. Sharing at this level can slowly lead over time to sharing at deeper levels, bringing understanding, insight and bonding. In this vein questions that introduce sometimes surprising but rich answers that also provide understanding and insight, include:

  • If this organisation were a kind of food, what would it be?
  • If a movie were made of this organisation, what genre would it be?
  • Does our culture value habit/safety more than novelty/surprise?

You can also facilitate a session where people are asked to step into the moccasins of the other. “Successful collaboration between stakeholders starts with what social psychologists call perspective taking: the ability to see the world through someone else’s eyes”.9 Get people to discover each other in pairs, and to then share with the group the unique and positive aspects of the other. They act as an advocate for their partner (counter-attitudinal advocacy) – a sure way of breaking down differences.10 Inter-departmental roles, objectives, and work habits are also often fraught with stereotyping and prejudice stemming from misunderstandings.

Now is the time to get rid of ‘we and them’ attitudes. This sentiment seems to be gaining ground in many places, and there is a trend away from globalisation back to Nationalism. Instead of walls, barriers, silos, laws and actions that divide, a more appropriate metaphor for our times is that of a bridge. Bridges are a powerful metaphorical image of crossing barriers, forging connections, and peace-making.

Helmut Kohl, the former German Chancellor instrumental in uniting Europe, said: “Wherever frontiers can be crossed without hindrance, ideas and opinions can be freely exchanged and people can meet, distrust and enmity are bound to be overcome in the end ”.

In a group setting, perhaps even as a part of an anecdote circle on the topic of diversity, I sometimes introduce a question designed so that each participant is able to receive explicit recognition for their unique personhood. Difference is good. Prejudice and separation are not.

The Rewards of Diverse Teams

Rumi the Sufi poet told the ancient story of an elephant and blind men. Each man felt a different
part. To one a leg was assumed to be a pillar, the tail felt like rope, and the ears like a huge fan.
Yet another thought the elephant’s trunk was a branch of a tree... Each one was right in their own
way but only by putting their different views together could the complete picture be seen.

Teams that have a common purpose, blended competencies, are inclusive and take responsibility to contribute skills to a greater whole, are on their way to becoming world-class. Problem-solving and creativity improve: “When we hear dissent from someone who is different from us, it provokes more thought than when it comes from someone who looks like us.

There are more and more examples to learn from. A recent study by McDonald’s in the UK found that employees who work with peers of different generations tend to be a bit happier at work, while customer satisfaction seems to improve as well. New global research (by McKinsey) makes it increasingly clear that companies with more diverse workforces (particularly ethnicity and gender) perform better financially.

After all, as an ancient African proverb explains “ Chra chimive hachitswaa inda: a thumb working on its own is worthless. It has to work collectively with the other fingers to get strength and be able to achieve. One finger cannot pick up a grain” . Ubuntu means that we are human because of our connectedness to all others.

We need to work towards developing empathy and compassion for those different to ourselves, in ways that include forgiveness, take us out of our comfort zones, accepting of imperfection and mistakes as we go along. It turns out that this is good for us! Empathy, in combination with unconditional, positive regard and congruency (towards others and self) – as shown by Carl Rogers – adds up to what is called “Presence”, and goes a long way to building our self–esteem.

Here is a practice to adopt moving forward: An ancient Hawaiian practice, Ho'oponopono, means to make (ho’o) right (pono) right (pono). So if there is a relationship problem the process (starting with self) is "I am sorry. Please forgive me. I love you. Thank you". If there is tension between people and obvious frustration during a meeting, then on a signal a pause, silent breathing, gentle expression of feelings and needs, and then moving forward with a Ho'oponopono attitude has the same effect.