Travel the world. It doesn’t matter where you go. People are Diverse. defines diversity as, “A point or respect in which things differ.” Simple really. So why are we so stuck with it? Why when you mention diversity, or one of it’s many derivatives (diversity management, embracing diversity, etc), is the response akin to talking about abortion or the death sentence in a room full of right wing conservatives?
Diversity as such is not difficult. Diversity emerges from any point in which we differ. Any point really. I differ with people on a daily basis. My day just wouldn’t be my day if there was no differing. In fact the world wouldn’t be the world if there was no differing. Like and dislikes. Skills and knowledge. Sickness and health. These differences lead people to different responses, which leads to the development of different products. Air conditioning, motor cars, space travel, TV, brick homes, mobile phones, supermarkets, malls, cricket, soccer, Pink Floyd, and the list goes on and on. I’m prepared to bet my colleague’s January wages that differing is responsible for all of that and much, much more.
So why all the fuss around diversity? I still don’t get it. But maybe I’m not supposed to get it? Maybe I’m a little too young, or just not old enough to get it? I say that because sometime in the last 50 years things started changing. Sure change has been with us since we discovered fire, but back then change took a long time to do it’s thing. Sometimes it took so long people didn’t even see it, or feel its consequences. But then change started changing. It got faster, and bigger, and soon my parents and their parents were so overwhelmed by change they didn’t know what to do with themselves.
So they did what most people do when things get tough and change asks you to change. They hankered after the past. They wished things could be the way they’d always been. They longed for harmony. Yes harmony. That was the world in which they’d grown up in (you’re right, there were two world wars, but the emphasis after each war was on recreating harmony – think League of Nations and United Nations). Theirs was a world in which harmony was a much sought after outcome. They hired the same colour people, from similar cultures, with similar religious beliefs, who were mostly the same gender, and lived in the same area, wore the same suits and ties, drove similar cars to similar office blocks, and lived similar lives. And when you put a group of people together who have lots in common, you often get harmony (technically it’s probably pseudo-harmony, but at least everyone knew how to make it look real).
But what to do with the diversity? It was a problem, because governments got involved. And government wouldn’t let my parents and their parents ‘do’ harmony the way they used to. They now had a new goal to work towards – to be inclusive. This was supposed to be a new way to bring harmony to the world. A way they’d never had to do it before: with different people. People who differed. On a daily basis. And so they were forced to embrace diversity. They were told to let women in. And blacks. And foreigners. And the disabled. And they weren’t allowed to comment on disabilities. Or religious beliefs or habits. They were told it was all a good thing. And they were told it was going to be great. That this is what it was supposed to be like. But someone forgot to tell them that they may as well kiss harmony goodbye, ‘cos it was never, ever, coming back. Well not like they were used to.
And that’s why people younger than 35 don’t get it. That’s why diversity got such a bad reputation. Because this entire time people have been engaging with diversity in order to reach harmony. And nobody told them that harmony don’t live here anymore.
That’s not a bad thing. No it’s not bad at all. In fact it’s a great thing, because what diversity did bring was creativity. That’s the outcome of diversity. Take a whole group of different people. Different in lots of ways. Take different gender, colour, culture, sexual orientation, age, wealth and more, and put them in a room together. Sure there’ll be a whole lot of differing, but there’s also going to be a whole lot of creativity as well.
And so we’re left with two problems. The first one I’ve mentioned above. Most people think the outcome of diversity is harmony. Actually, the outcome is creativity (or total chaos, if not managed properly). And when they don’t get harmony, they need to blame someone. So they blame the people who are different from them. That’s no good, because the whole room is blaming everyone else as soon as the first person starts the blaming game.
The second problem, which leads on from the first problem, is that because we keep thinking we’re failing, our blaming has caused us to stop doing the basics of respect, dignity, trust, community. Without these, no group can ever function successfully.
To solve these two problems we need to change people’s minds about diversity, harmony and creativity. Harmony is a characteristic that died with the Model T Ford. It must be replaced with dignity, trust, respect and community. Diversity is part of our new world. We cannot get rid of it, or wish it away. But, if we understand this, it can result in creativity like nothing the world has ever seen. We live in exciting times. We wake up each morning in a world that, while it has it’s fair share of problems, holds for each one of us an exciting journey raring to go. A journey marked by differing and creativity and innovation. For that reason, and that reason alone, we should embrace it, own it, and dare to be different!
Barrie is a partner of, a dynamic organisation that is assisting both large and small companies navigate the rich streams of the new economy. He is recognised as a creative and strategic thinker with an ability to influence individuals and teams to explore ‘outside the box’ options. have several entertaining and enlightening multimedia presentations that explore themes relevant to leadership in tomorrow’s world.

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