Friday, January 1, 2010

Diversity: The Missing Ingredient & It's Competitive Advantage

It has been several months since I attended ASAE's Diversity Conference in Baltimore. Since then I have spent quiet a bit of time in silent contemplation and reflection on this topic of diversity. I have also spent significant time in various organizations observing people at work and having discussions. While we have made significant strides towards valuing our surface differences, I also believe that we really have not done as effective of a job when it comes to truly understanding and leveraging "real" diversity to achieve a competitive advantage and drive organizational performance.

To better convey my thoughts, please allow me to use the automobile as a metaphor. While they come in various shapes, sizes and styles, at the core of each and what powers each automobile is the engine. That engine is a very complex machinery with numerous moving parts (again of various shapes and sizes) and it is the lubricant that is a very key ingredient ensuring the engine runs smoothly. Without it, significant friction would be created, components would begin to malfunction and eventually the engine would seize and perhaps even results in a violent and dangerous fire situation.

When it comes to diversity in the business environment, the situation is very similar to that of an engine and as the lubricant is to the engine, real human understanding of each other is to organizations. Yet, here is where I see the breakdown and what I observe and hear about on an ongoing basis, and associations are by no means except nor immune to this phenomena.

As we go through life, we take all types of subjects including math, sciences, arts, and so on. While they are very important indeed, what we don't learn enough, if at all, about is human behavior and lack of this understanding creates the effect similar to that of running an engine without sufficient or appropriate lubricant. Please allow me to expand my thoughts here.

In the workplace, there are always several different styles at work and each individual has his/her own inner motivations that serves as the fuel to power the engine. Let me present two of the styles here for discussion sake.

One style is what I refer to as "Drivers". They are self-assured, competitive, results oriented, fearless, confident, driven to win, fast paced and they love to take charge. These people have immense value to add to every organization. Yet due to lack of understanding of human behavior, they are often, specially under stress, perceived and mislabeled as bossy, jerk, autocratic, pushy, stubborn, confrontation, hostile, forceful, dominating, aggressive, blunt, intimidating, dictatorial, get the idea.

Then there are those who I refer to as "Conscientious". Their strengths are they are critical thinkers, detail oriented, precise, accurate, meticulous, logical, task focused. Yet these very same people who add so much value to organizations, by those who don't recognize and understand them, these people are too often labeled as
perfectionists, picky, fussy, cold, pessimistic, strict, defensive, hard-to-please.

Then in add'n to styles, there is the question of inner motivations. One can have very similar behaviors but very different motivations that drive their behaviors. Some are driven to lead, others who drive for results, those whose mission is to serve, and so on.

While my purpose here is not to give a discourse on behaviors and motivations, what I am trying to convey is that if we truly want to leverage diversity and turn that into our competitive advantage, we MUST spend the time and resources to better understand each other at our core. As that is done, that will be similar to adding fresh
lubricant to an engine. And that will lead to each higher performance and greater success in the long run.

But here is the resistance that often comes. We don't have the time. That is like cutting a tree with a dull saw. We work hard but progress is slow and work frustrating and de-energizing. As the javelin thrower, at times one has to take several steps back before being able to gain enough speed to jump over the hurdle. It is similar with diversity. We must take the time to truly understand each other at a much deeper level and then engage in a heartfelt dialogue and from that actions will emerge that will result in greater human understanding and truly turn diversity into a business competitive advantage. As that is done, diversity will naturally begin to be further understood, valued and actually even sought out for diversity leads to better decisions, more creativity and stronger organizations.

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