Diversity in Organizations

Organizations have enormous power to focus efforts on collective goals, objectives, issues, problems, and results, if they so choose. It’s the power of an organization’s convergent effect — people coming together in a planned way to accomplish something mutually beneficial for all involved. That’s the theory of organization.

If organizations exist to unite diverse perspectives, capabilities, and talents in pursuit of common purposes and mutually beneficial results, why do they stifle diversity, seek sameness, discourage individuality, promote conformance, reward uniformity, and punish nonconformity? Because managing diversity is harder than managing uniformity — managing diversity is more challenging, expensive, time consuming, demanding, stressful, and prone to fail.

Managing uniformity requires little more than an authoritarian hierarchy, strict enforcement of procedures and performance standards, command and control management styles, and a conforming workforce — the allure of uniformity lies in its ease of administration, stability and predictability, efficiency of operations, low cost and on-budget performance, minimal volatility with few surprises and quickly conforming culture. However, an abundance of research and experience shows that organizations and work environments with high levels of required uniformity inevitably stifle creativity and innovation, retard initiative-taking, prevent widespread accountability for results, limit freedom to expand and create value, and weaken individual motivation, commitment and fulfillment. A truly diverse organization or work environment, on the other hand, unified through common vision and purpose is healthy, strong, innovative, dynamic, and capable of blending a multiplicity of perspectives, experiences, and abilities, and it is able to weather significant competitive challenges.

An abundance of diversity exists in nature until it’s altered. An untouched acre of ground in Maine, for example, may contain up to 10,000 different varieties of tree and plant life. Such diversity is not only inspiring and beautiful, but also ecologically robust. If you were to level an unharmed acre of ground in Maine, removing all indigenous plant life and then letting it sit untouched, new growth would bring less than 10 percent of the former diversity in terms of tree and plant life. The trees and plants that first gain root in the newly leveled ground would dominate the space, preventing additional diversity from developing. Once removed, diversity rarely returns on its own. The uniformity mandate of the dominant species makes it impossible for diversity to flourish naturally. The lesson for modern organizations and their management teams is obvious: Diversity must be carefully and constantly nurtured, because creating an organization is a lot like leveling ground. Both activities create new space where the initial staffing or first species will attempt to dominate and control diversity. The very act of establishing and staffing an organization begins a process of limiting diversity, unless diversity is genuinely valued and vigilantly nurtured. Diversity by definition is the attempt to bring together competing interests into a single whole, Without constant nourishment, vibrant and productive diversity will eventually fade into ineffective, unfulfilling uniformity. Organizations with high levels of uniformity are ineffective and stagnant — ultimately producing inbred corporate cultures that lack the new perspectives, pioneering capabilities and fresh ideas necessary to survive. That is the curse of uniformity.

Organizations and their management teams often define diversity too narrowly by tolerating, rather than embracing, government guidelines about inclusion of gender, racial, and sexual diversity in the workplace; focusing on the avoidance of legal risks, rather than the benefits of diversity; and doing the minimum necessary, rather than the maximum, to promote diversity. In the end, they promote uniformity rather than diversity, and understand only those customers who are most like their employees.