DIVERSE: DISTINCT IN KIND; disparate; unalike. Having variety in form …” Okay, stand up if you are willing to admit that you are just a cog in the wheel, a face in the crowd, a cipher completely lacking in differences from all your fellow human beings … What, no takers?
I thought as much.
The truth is that diversity is the human condition. Even identical twins display differences in behavior, tastes, and motivation. And I'm sure you've heard: men are from Mars and women are from Venus. Our personalities and workstyles are a rich, complex gumbo of cultural influences, genetic predispositions, and personal experiences. Diversity, in a word, is what makes the world such an interesting place.
But diversity is also a word that has gotten a bad rap. That's partly because of the way it's frequently been presented to us. We like to think simplistically about complex issues, and the staccato soundbite nature of most of our communications precludes long, thoughtful discourse and reflection. Yet it would be pretty hard to do justice to the revolutionary influence that a true appreciation for human diversity can have on the workplace in a memo, a TV spot, or a one-day training session, much less in these few pages.
But let's give it our best shot. Just for now, put aside your understanding of what it means to work in a diverse setting. Let's ignore the obvious things: gender and race.
Now, that's not to say that gender and race are not profound sources of difference, and sometimes of the conflict that arises from difference. And that's not to gloss over the very real gains that women and minorities have made in the workplace, in part because of the kind of consciousness-raising diversity education that has been standard over the last several years. There's no doubt that asking people to confront their prejudices and stereotypes, while painful, promotes personal growth and, eventually, social change. Organizations that focus a spotlight on race and gender issues serve a very important purpose, light a flame under the proverbial melting pot (for more about PMI’s Diversity SIG, see sidebar).
But the danger of too much focus on the obvious differences between people is that it simplifies the issue and polarizes people. It reduces the complex flavors of that gumbo to chocolate or vanilla, to mix our metaphors a bit. And when that happens, it not only cheapens our discussion of diversity, it also inhibits our understanding and lets our organizations off the hook. If diversity is simply a matter of placing the right mix of colors or genders around a table, of providing a half-day lecture session, that's easy. What is hard is to shape an organization that allows humanity, in all its incredible unalikeness, to flourish; to take away the barriers visible and invisible that prevent people from giving their all, doing their best, sharing their perceptions freely. To create that kind of creative powerhouse you have to go a little deeper than skin deep.
Understanding Diversity. Two women, both software developers, both in their late 30s, both the same race, whatever it may be, let's say they even share a religion. Homogeneous pair? Look closer.
Let's call her Donna. She's married but she doesn't have any kids. Her husband is a high-tech salesman, makes the big bucks. They take exotic vacations; she collects art. Her parents, too, are well-off; she went to a ritzy Eastern girls’ school. She subscribes to Gourmet magazine but secretly prefers fast-food burgers. Her husband is her best friend; she's not much for girl talk. Her primary worry this year: financial planning. They really want to buy a second home in the islands. Donna is right-handed; she's a night owl who loves to work until the wee hours and sleep through the morning when she can; she does her best work between two and five a.m. In groups, she is very goal-oriented, likes to get down to brass tacks, and takes leadership easily when she feels like the group is waffling. Something that most of her co-workers don't know about her is that she has a chronic illness that sometimes makes it difficult for her to do things they take for granted; she guards this information because she fears it might tarnish her chances for advancement. Luckily, her propensity for working nights makes up for the days when she sometimes feels too crummy to contribute her best at work.
You can value diversity all day long inside your head, whether that head is brown or pale or male or female, and if the management of your organization has not fully organized around the reality of individual differences, it won't have much impact on your professional life.
Her co-worker Leslie, by contrast, had kind of a hardscrabble childhood. She went to work as a dispatcher for a trucking firm right out of high school in the High Plains state where she grew up. Then they computerized. Computers were neat; she got intrigued. At 25, and newly divorced from her trucker husband, with a newborn baby boy, she enrolled in college. For now she's pretty comfortable, but college is looming for her son and her mother is in a nursing home: more expense, and more worry. Leslie likes to cook: her social life is the church softball team eating pasta at her house. She talks to her childhood girlfriend Sally on the phone almost every week. An early riser, Leslie doodles thoughtfully with her left hand while she listens—it seems to sharpen her concentration (even though it drives Donna nuts). She likes being a team player at work; in groups she finds herself easily providing the “social glue” that helps people to communicate and bond. Her biggest worry this year: downsizing. Who will take care of her son and her mother if she loses her job?
Valuing Diversity. The value of diversity to today's organizations has been proven again and again and keeps being proven anew. But we haven't yet fully capitalized on that value, simply because we've defined diversity so narrowly. The differences between Leslie and Donna, while invisible, play a crucial role in their orientation to the workplace. They are likely to be interested in different benefits and to need different types of flexibility from management when problems arise. They are likely to bring with them very different sets of assumptions, and to perceive problems and solutions differently. Their class differences further enrich the mix of world views on their project team. Differences on this level represent a secondary, but just as critical, dimension of diversity, one that is all too often ignored simply because it's easy to ignore differences that you can't see. (See Exhibit 1.)
“The Vineyard is Full, but the Workers are Few”
PMI's New Diversity SIG Turns Minority and Disabled Professionals On to Project Management
The mission of the Diversity Specific Interest Group is to increase the representation of nonmajority and disabled project managers within PMI. The primary focus of our SIG is to bring the benefits of certification and professionalism to groups that are not aware of PMI. There are many feeder organizations that are perfect candidates for PMP certification. The Black MBA, National Society of Black Engineers, Black Data Processing Association, National Black Accountants Association, and the Hispanic Engineering Association are just of few of the organizations that would be enriched by PMI certification.
I have been at one time or another part of most of the groups listed above. They all focus on increasing professionalism within a specific vocation. Over the past 25 years minority professionals have made strides toward entrance into Corporate America. However, we are not represented in the leadership echelons. Because project management certification requires the acquisition of general management skills, the PMBOK Guide is a perfect capstone study of executive-level skills and the decision process that prepares the aspirant for strategic and tactical leadership. It is often said that minorities must be 10 times better than the competition in order to get the same chances. PMP certification makes one at least 10 times better than the uncertified leader. Credentials force decision-makers to consider qualified minorities that may not have been considered otherwise.
The most exciting objective of our SIG is to reach out to historically black colleges and universities in order to change the curriculum to reach students when they are most ready to make career choices. Today, these institutions do not teach project management or have student chapters. PMI needs to be represented in order to assure a pipeline of energy and fresh ideas.
The secondary focus of our SIG is to educate professionals about the career lift that PMP certification can be for a stalled career. There are a large number of minority professionals who are frustrated with their career options. They are searching for something. They do not want to invest tens of thousands of dollars and several years in graduate schools due to the small return that the investment generally yields. However, PMP certification is tangible and germane to the jobs they hold today. The investment in PMI and the related knowledge areas yields returns in confidence and opportunities that have immediate impact.
Kevin Patrick is one disabled member of our SIG. He made me aware of another group of people who could benefit from PMI. Americans with disabilities are struggling with acceptance and credibility in today's marketplace. Adding PMP to the credentials and skills that these people already possess was in line with the mission of our SIG. We are reaching out through established interest groups, associations, fraternities, sororities and other societies to reach prospective new PMI members.
Project management leadership skills are going to be the stalwart of effective management in the 21st century. These new leaders will be managing a very diverse employee base. If we don't start training some of this employee base for leadership, we will be less competitive and may not be able to manage and control the exponential growth of technology. Right now, the vineyard is full but the workers are few. It is irresponsible not to educate and train the largest segment of our 21st-century workforce in the art of leadership—project management. ■
By focusing on the primary, visible characteristics that make us diverse, we gloss over differences of education, culture, class, work and communication styles that actually affect our interaction even more profoundly than, say, gender. But surfacing our hidden differences, our deeper dimension of diversity, doesn't happen automatically. And just being aware of that deeper dimension doesn't automatically translate into either an all-embracing work environment or bottom-line gains for the organization. That's where management comes in; and that's where companies too often fall short.
Managing Diversity. Here's the tough part and, unfortunately, the only part that's likely to make any real difference. You can value diversity all day long inside your head, whether that head is brown or pale or male or female, and if the management of your organization has not fully organized around the reality of individual differences, it won't have much impact on your professional life.
Let's say you represent a dimension of diversity that is having an increasing impact on organizations today: You are a knowledge worker. Your worth is in your head, in your ability to understand new material quickly, synthesize it, think critically about it, and communicate your understanding to others on the team and in the client base. There's no precise line that separates your work from your life, because it all takes place in your mind, the two intertwine and overlap. You are as likely to think of elegant solutions to work problems as you lie in bed at night as you are to miss your absent significant other. You love work … but hate your job. The performance measures seem wrongheaded to you; the whole business of tracking your productivity by measuring how many minutes you spent in each file on your computer insulting. What about that valuable staring into space at three a.m.? What about the six books on breakthrough thinking you took on vacation? Nine to five in a cubicle doesn't seem to jive with the way you do your best work, but management says: “How will we know you are working if we can't see you sitting in this particular chair? If you need flexibility, okay, but that kind of takes you off the fast track …”
No doubt your company has a commitment to ethnic and gender diversity. You may even have suffered through diversity training (for training without suffering, see sidebar). But they haven't truly understood the concept of an organization as a collection of individuals with differing work styles, priorities and talents. Like many companies today, they may be trying to manage intellectual capital as though they were running a shoe factory. Welcome to the ’90s.
This tension between monolithic, rule-bound organizations and the simmering gumbo of human creativity is understandable when you glance backward at the way organizations have evolved over the last century. The scientific management rage in the early part of the 1900s strove to reduce human activity in organizations to an equation: inputs here, times prescribed repetitive actions, equals outputs there. Workers were merely parts in an enormous machine, and the more homogeneous they were, the better they fit that role. That may have worked pretty well at the shoe factory (although there's increasing evidence that we were merely blind to the problems it created) but 60 years later, at the knowledge factory—a software development company, a project management consulting firm, a telecommunications network, a pharmaceutical R&D organization, a health care management firm—we find ourselves struggling to make thoughts behave like shoes and fall neatly off the end of the line into a box.
Some companies, of course, are running ahead of the others on this issue. In fact, you could make a case that any company that is working to address the human side of business is hitting all the diversity bases, even if it's by accident. One example of such a firm is Islandia, New York-based Computer Associates International, where Founder, Chairman and CEO Charles B. Wang (himself a Chinese immigrant and a single father) has woven the personal needs of his employees and the social needs of his community into the fabric of his company's mission. With a management style that “defies every management book,” according to Senior Vice President Lisa Mars, quoted in a recent interview in Sky magazine, CAI leads the industry in revenue per employee, while still providing perks such as a $1 million onsite child care center and free dinner for late-working employees.
HIGHLY EDUCATED, diverse in almost every way, today's workforce is a potential source of increased competitive edge in a global, information-based society. What they need in order to function best is not a six-hour class in appreciating diversity, but appreciation of that diversity built into the process and procedures of the organization they work for. Too often, today's narrowly focused diversity training merely leaves people feeling personally inadequate to the task of fully using the diversity around them. Yet they may be trying to function within a structure that prefers cogs in a machine to real human beings. To paraphrase Shakespeare just a tad, the fault, dear Reader, lies not in our selves, but in our organizational paradigms. ■
Choosing a Diversity Training Program
Enormous resources are being expended on diversity programs, but a substantial portion of these efforts are doomed because the organization's leadership is not on board. Diversity is a process, not a program: A one-shot training session will not “fix” things. Diversity training is a good way to raise awareness and impart diversity management skills. But it is, at best, only a beginning. To sustain training momentum, organizational policies and practices must illustrate management's commitment to a balanced diversity strategy.
The first and most important step in initiating an effective diversity training program is to have a clear understanding of the organization's approach to the diversity issue. To be successful, the diversity concept needs the full support of the organization's leadership.
Choosing the actual training program, then, becomes the second step. In today's diversity training, two main training approaches are used: awareness training and skill-based training. Awareness training aims at raising participants’ awareness of diversity issues and revealing their assumptions and tendencies to stereotype. Awareness-based training programs may differ in emphasis, but most are primarily cognitive. While knowledge and conscious-raising are critical, this type of training often leaves participants at a loss as to what to do with their new understanding.
To recognize and respond to the needs of today's diverse workforce, workers need some new tools, so a diversity program also should include skills training. It is old news that an organization's success depends on how effectively and efficiently people work together, but the skills necessary to enhance this people synergism do not come naturally to many people. Specifically, today's workforce needs instruction and practice that will help them understand and deal with cultural differences, diffuse intergroup conflict, and talk about workplace issues in a sensitive, appropriate manner.
Here are 10 characteristics of a diversity workshop that provides knowledge, raises awareness, and includes diversity management skills. The program should:
■ Use a self-assessment tool that allows participants to examine their cultural values, their stereotypes and prejudices, and their workstyle orientation
■ Show how diversity is a business and organizational necessity for success
■ Contain topics such as cultural perceptions, stereotypes, inclusion and exclusion, and communication barriers
■ Have an activity that reminds participants what it is like to be different
■ Provide techniques for resolving conflict
■ Practice behaviors/interventions that help create an inclusive work environment
■ Have frequent group activities/role plays using realistic situations
■ Include video support
■ Offer a Personal Action Plan for participants to translate insights and skills back to the workplace
■ Encourage positive, open discussions and a continuation of this dialogue back in the workplace. Remember, diversity is a journey—not the destination.
A diversity training program that contains all or most of these guidelines will prove beneficial to the trainees and enhance an organization's diversity initiative. While the list above may serve as a “green light” for selecting a training program, here are a few “caution lights” as well. Be wary of:
The program that requires the diversity trainer be a woman or an ethic minority. The thinking here is that female or minority trainers will be more effective because they may have firsthand experience with discrimination. A single-minded adherence to this belief is just that, single-minded. While it is important to have an empathic connection to diversity issues, it is equally important to connect with the trainees. An effective trainer in diversity is one who is sensitive to the views of all participants, and a flexible facilitator who creates a climate that promotes open, honest discussion.
Programs that are driven by guilt. When diversity training focuses on injustice, the climate becomes one of finger-pointing and confrontation. Participants may become polarized into victims and oppressors. An effective program should diffuse intergroup conflict, not generate it.
Diversity training that is EEO and affirmative action with a new label. Look for programs that go beyond race and gender. Diversity is the mixture that defines your organization, including age, religion, education, communication style, management style, product lines, geography, and much, much more. Programs that focus only on race and gender miss many of the identity groups that make up today's workplace.
ONE LAST PIECE OF ADVICE: you may want to reframe the mindset diversity training to diversity education. After all, people can't be trained to be diverse—people are already diverse! What's needed is an educational experience that assists a group of diverse people in functioning more effectively in their work environment. ■