Five Myths That Doom Diversity Efforts

November 27th, 2011

Greater diversity does not easily translate to greater performance. It takes work to make that happen. Yet many leaders are content in the illusion that symbolic activities and underfunded training classes will turn their increasingly diverse organizations into world-class performers. Understanding why diversity is so often mismanaged requires debunking five strongly held myths about diversity:

Myth 1: Having diversity will increase performance and profits

Why it’s a myth: Having greater diversity in your team and in your organization only helps if you understand what to do with it.  Bringing together people of different ethnicities, genders, or sexual orientations and saying “go to work” is a blueprint for failure and several studies bear this out.  The key is being strategic about what kind of diversity you need to get the job done and going after it.

Myth 2: If you increase the number of women and people of color, you have increased your diversity

Why it’s a myth: Of course gender and ethnicity play a role in the way people see things. But the value of diversity doesn’t come from the appearance of a person.  Rather, it comes in taking advantage of diverse perspectives to create business results. You can have a group that very much looks like the rainbow, but thinks pretty much the same.  In that case, you haven’t increased your diversity at all.

Myth 3: Diversity efforts always benefit women and people of color

Why it’s a myth: White males are the generally the dominant group in the U.S. workplace and often believe they have the most to lose—jobs, promotions, status—when it comes to diversity.  But women, people of color, and other people who are different also resist when diversity rhetoric and norms of behavior single them out and put them under a microscope.  If diversity is only about counting heads, neither the organization nor “diverse” employees benefit in the long run.

Myth 4: A diverse workplace is ideally a harmonious and integrated workplace

Why it’s a myth: When diversity is working at its best, people are constantly bumping up against new ideas and perspectives that challenge long-held beliefs about how they see the world.  I don’t know about you, but that activity usually unsettles me.  A workplace in which differences are being leveraged is dynamic, energized, emotional and rarely boring.  If you think that the ultimate vision for true diversity is constant harmony, think again.

Myth #5: Corporate leaders who want to increase race and gender diversity will make it happen 

Why it’s a myth: Leaders constantly juggle the need to meet business goals with the need to meet diversity goals. That causes them frequently to make choices between a focus on either increasing race and gender diversity, or focusing on corporate performance.  Because diversity is not well-linked to perfromance, they have to choose which will take precedent and diversity efforts almost always fall by the wayside.  And an added cost: these leaders—who really want to do the right thing—end up worried that they will be seen as biased because they aren’t making progress with diversity.  The only solution to this is to make diversity efforts and corporate performance one in the same.  Leveraging difference, not managing diversity, can do just that.

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2 Responses to “Five Myths That Doom Diversity Efforts”

  1. Bravo! I completely agree. Similarly because we truly do not understand how to leverage differences we have established an inventory of diversity best practices that have become the focus of many diversity programs as if they are the destination versus part of the journey. We have even created awards for firms doing these best practices well. So why are these award winners not enjoying the power of leveraging differences? Meeting the diversity challenge certainly requires the commitment demonstrated by these practices. However, to truly succeed in meeting the diversity challenge a firm must create, live, and breathe inclusion. Leveraging differences drives inclusion. Inclusion must be part of the DNA of the culture. This requires leaders who lead, think, create, and value inclusion as part of their execution model. This kind of cultural DNA cannot be bought off a training shelf nor is it a project to be managed. Inclusion is not simply something one does. That is diversity compliance. Inclusion is something one lives.

  2. Mark Dixon says:

    My pastor occasionally reminds us that you could (theoretically) tie a cat’s tail with a dog’s tail and that the result would be “togetherness” but not “unity.”

    It seems that likewise, some of our assumptions about diversity would not stand up to the serious challenges of real life.

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