Darden: Making differences work

June 30, 2013

“Unfortunately, ‘diversity’ has become a dirty word. When all is said and done, it just doesn’t work in our company and I don’t care what all the zealots say, facts are facts.” — Fortune 100 corporate executive.

I recently interviewed the members of a large firm’s leadership team after they had agreed to end virtually all of the firm’s diversity initiatives. This company’s leaders genuinely wanted to create a more inclusive and diverse environment, but the chief executive was fed up with years of dead-end initiatives that had done little to create any real change. Their discontent was legitimate. If leaders really do want some kind of shift toward greater inclusion in their companies and if they don’t really see compelling value from their efforts, then what should they do?

My research and consulting on what I call “leveraging differences” lays out three critical principles for making diversity work.

Strategy first

The starting point for doing diversity well is a deep understanding of the business strategy. That way, exploration of how difference can make a difference is aligned with the company’s purpose. This step has two powerful implications. First, any activity that is aligned with the business strategy is much more likely to last. If you are looking for sustainable change in diversity, this is where to start. Second, and more challenging, is that this means that traditional common diversity agendas — such as closing racial or gender disparities — may or may not be the most important work for an organization to do. Instead, its focus may be on greater diversity of educational background, or on age or level of innovative thinking. The best way to build diversity always comes from following the business strategy.

Let all differences matter

The corollary to the strategy-drives-diversity principle is that many kinds of differences may be relevant. Diversity initiatives usually focus on a small set of socially important differences such as race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age or religion. But to leverage difference, leaders must identify the differences that really matter in helping the organization achieve its goals. And it’s incumbent on leaders to redirect resources from activities that don’t support those organizational goals. If learning style diversity is more important for a consulting firm’s success than gender diversity, it’s legitimate to focus more on developing collaboration among people with different learning styles. One important caution: those differences that are most charged and contentious in a society are often the most fertile ground for learning how to leverage difference. Gender, race and sexual orientation often go hand in hand with deeper differences like thought style and creativity. It’s hard to build a personal competency and an organizational capability for engaging difference if you aren’t willing to deal with tough differences directly.

See the larger goal

To be the driver for leveraging difference, you have to clear your head and heart. What undermines attempts to make diversity work is the difficulty people have in foregoing personal and emotional agendas in the service of what is best for the organization. Those who resist diversity are convinced that it is bad. They adamantly refuse to attend to the irrefutable evidence of the benefits that diversity — when skillfully engaged — provides. Diversity proponents often avoid dealing with the legitimate discontent expressed by the executive I quoted at the beginning of this post. They advocate and sometimes even bully people into acquiescing to a diversity agenda. Both of these stances destroy the opportunity to realize the value that difference can bring to an organization.

Leaders who can leverage diversity take a realistic view of where and how differences help. They drive that message throughout the organization with meticulous analysis, social adeptness and the boundless energy that derives from doing important work that really helps an organization succeed.

Martin N. Davidson is professor of business administration at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business. He co-teaches executive education courses “Managing Individual and Organizational Change” in September and “The Women’s Leadership Program” in October.

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