Embracing diversity

evolving successfully into the new millennium: a positive workplace approach

Food Safety and Inspections, U.S. Department of Agriculture

Jocelyn S. Davis, President, Nelson Hart LLC

John H. Cable, RA, PMP, Director of Project Management Program,

Clark School of Engineering, University of Maryland


As we move into the new millennium, project managers are faced with an increasingly global workplace with shortfalls of highly skilled and experienced workers. It is important to develop, utilize, and optimize our full workforce capacity. Effective utilization of a diverse workforce from different cultures, customs, values and work habits is a key element of the Positive Workplace, one in which individuals flourish and organizations thrive.

This paper considers the insights offered from positive psychology – the study of how people flourish – relative to workplace diversity within the context of our increasingly competitive, global environment.

The authors (Davis & Cable, 2006) made a strong case for implementing key elements of positive psychology into managerial education and training to yield better business results. Key elements of this case include strengths-based management, solutions-focus, development of psychological capital (hope, resilience, optimism, and confidence), the essential role of emotions both positive and negative, and workplace engagement. Values, bias, and our natural desire for safety influence our ability to fully realize the benefits of the diverse workforce.

The authors share their exploration of how positive psychology may suggest a new pathway to developing and optimizing a truly diverse workplace. They conclude that continuing with current practices – despite the progress they have yielded -- will not result in the optimized diverse workplace in geographically dispersed organizations tasked with meeting global demands for productivity and innovation.

The Challenge

The Positive Workplace has particular import for project managers. Organizations increasingly depend on the success of strategic projects to remain competitive in the global and domestic markets. Projects primarily fail not because of technological or methodological errors, but because of problems in communications, change management, and teamwork (Wysocki, 2002, p. 9). There is a looming shortage in labor with the retirement of the Boomer generation. The globalization of the workforce is accelerating. Diversity in the workplace, originally considered as a matter of civil rights in the United States, is now a matter of economic necessity.

What does positive workplace have to do with diversity? The authors, working together to build practical applications for the project manager and other workplaces, posed this question seriously a year ago. The remainder of this paper outlines preliminary findings for evolving successfully into the new millennium by embracing diversity in the workplace.

The Approach

Bringing together the authors’ experiences in labor relations and human resources management (Hicks), project management (Cable) and positive psychology and management (Davis), we began the process of considering how key tenants of Positive Psychology might inform how we approach workplace diversity. We began with a list of theories and concepts central to positive psychology – strengths-based, solutions-focused, emotional intelligence, character strengths, positive and negative emotions, and their role, optimism, resilience, engagement, hope, confidence, motivation, social intelligence, and high performance teams. Additionally, we added some relevant ideas from other parts of psychology: moral circle, other/self dichotomy, implicit bias, win/win versus win/lose thinking, confirmation bias, and others too many to mention. Then we researched and thought about and discussed how these ideas might inform a next generation approach to workplace diversity.

The Top-line Observations

One of the authors was the principal researcher on this approach (Hicks). He is a middle-aged, African-American, lawyer, labor relations/human resources executive completing a career in the Federal government service at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It would be fair to say that he has been there, done that and got the tee shirt at all levels of workplace diversity over his some thirty-year career. (Each of the have decades of experience managing projects, large and small, with team members from diverse backgrounds and cultures. One of the authors (Davis) has cutting edge experience in applying the new science of positive psychology to the workplace.)

A new approach is needed to get to the next level.

The observation is that we can't be successful in getting to effective workplace diversity if we continue along our current path. It's not that the current path hasn't been effective in bringing minority groups into the workplace --- first to include and then to treat fairly people of different race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, disability or age. The current path has yielded significant cultural changes in the workplace. People are now included and have avenues available to redress inequities in the workplace. But, it's not enough. We are missing the upside of diversity: capitalizing on individual strengths and differences.

A broader definition of diversity is needed.

The traditional definition of diversity centers on differences that are historically perceived to denote a weakness or inferiority in the other --- race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, disability, or age. These categories to define diversity are based on bias, based on the commonly held (then) ideas that certain people are lazy, unclean, unreliable, unintelligent, incapable of solving math problems, too emotional, too set in their ways, mentally inferior, not normal, immoral, and the like.

What if we had a broader concept of diversity – one that isn't all about what people aren't good at?

A change from victim/perpetrator to win/win is the way forward.

Looking into the concepts of moral circle, zero sum game, natural groups or tribes, effect and purpose of positive and negative emotion, implicit bias, and how we internalize rules for engaging with world led us to realize that not all diversity issues are the result of deliberate, conscious attempts to victimize those who are different from ourselves. It also led us to the observation that discrimination runs in many directions. And, this led us to inquire why that might be so. If well-meaning people agree that acceptance and tolerance in the workplace and community are values we aspire to, why are we still having difficulty making it a reality?

We need a different language for diversity to forge real progress.

We have moved as a culture to saying and believing that we tolerate and accept diversity in the workplace. Words are so important to how we view the world. It's time to reconsider the limitations inherent in these two common words in the diversity conversation and to broaden our horizons.

The Reality of Diversity in the Next Millennium

It's reasonable to wonder why diversity needs a new look as we move into the next millennium.

The workplace is going global at a rate none of us could have imagined. Countries and populations that ten years ago weren't even a blip in the global marketplace are now significant providers of inexpensive knowledge workers and growing consumers of the world's products and resources. Immigration and demographic patterns in the U.S. are changing the concept of a single majority population – as employees, as customers and as business owners..

The aging of the Boomer Generation in the U.S. and comparable demographic trends globally will likely cause a significant and widening gap between jobs available and people available to fill them. Certain industries are already facing significant shortfalls in qualified workers.

Changes in the work attitudes of the upcoming generations may enhance the gap between the supply of workers and the employment demands of the global economy.

Conflict in the workplace is costly. Failure to engage the workforce is costly as well (Davis & Cable, 2006).

All of these reasons support the need to reconsider

Our Exploration of Evolving Successfully

Positive Psychology

Positive psychology is the study of the conditions under which people flourish. That doesn't seem so radical, except that traditional psychology has focused primarily on what's wrong with us and eliminating that rather than focusing on what's right with us and doing more of that (Seligman, 2002, xi). It's not an either/or proposition. The elimination of functional deficits is an important part of the medical practice. It eliminates illness, it doesn't promote health. It brings us from negative to neutral, but not to optimal.

Historical diversity initiatives parallel this thinking. We've worked to eliminate the negative: people excluded from the workplace and subject to unfair treatment in the workplace because they belong to a particular group which is different from the majority.

Our diversity, however, is much more complex than race, ethnicity, gender, etc. Our diversity runs also to strengths and weaknesses that impact workplace performance. Because of our bias towards focus on the negative (see next section), we tend to focus on negative differences or weaknesses, real or perceived. This misses the other side of differences, the positive differences or strengths. To turn this to an advantage in managing project teams, we must first understand how to apply the concepts of the Positive Workplace.

A quick example. Working in a Latin American country where a major U.S. technology company has outsourced call center operations for customer service and technical support, we can see this in action. A perceived cultural difference is how conflict is engaged. The local culture is polite and respectful nearly to a fault. Conflict is avoided and peace is prized. The U.S. clients’ culture is direct and to the point, unafraid of making demands for service quite directly. The employer perceives the cultural diversity as the local culture being too nice, difference as a weakness. In fact, the local culture supports a customer friendly, tolerant, facilitative approach to customer calls, a difference as strength.

img Insight: Elimination of deficits is a worthwhile goal. It gets us to neutral. It alleviates the negative. What it doesn't do, is get us to optimal. Put another way…(Exhibit 1)


Exhibit 1

Let's now explore how negative emotions, adaptive unconscious, ingroup/outgroup, moral circles, positive emotions, and win/win thinking can contribute to redefining how we understand diversity in the context of creating and enhancing the Positive Workplace in the next millennium.

Negative Emotions

We humans are hard-wired to focus first on eliminating threats to our survival. It's a handy adaptation to the metaphorical battle between the caveman and the saber-toothed tiger. We pay more attention to the negative and we automatically and actively strive to eliminate anything that threatens our survival. We were unlikely to see the poppies in bloom while being on the lookout for the next predator. Negative emotions are part of our evolutionary inheritance to assure that we think fast enough to take survival-oriented action in dangerous circumstances. These emotions include fear, anger, apathy, grief, shame, blame, resentment, and hostility. They prepare us to mentally and physically take immediate action against an object or situation that poses a threat. These negative emotions narrow our thinking and actions to the fight or flight or freeze response we learned about in high school biology. When under threat, real or perceived, we are hardwired to find a workable solution immediately and not focused on considering the merits of various possible alternatives. Just think about how you respond to a squiggly, black thing about five feet long across the path on which you are hiking. You respond first…it might be a snake…and confirm that it isn't from a safe distance. As thinking narrows, we do not see the possibilities or solutions that are right in front of us. They create tunnel vision. They encourage pessimism. (Fredrickson, 2004) Negative emotions initiate avoidance behaviors aimed at assuring survival.

img Insight: Setting up a negative emotional situation relative to diversity in the workplace is likely to evoke the survival response: fight, flight or freeze. We have to consciously override our negative bias in the face of differences. The good news is that we can train ourselves to do just that!

Adaptive Unconscious

We humans also have the benefit of a complex conscious thinking process which includes our executive function or decision-making function. While a totally amazing organ, the conscious brain does have processing limitations. We can only think about a few things at a time. To accommodate this processing limitation, we rapidly move routine thinking to the unconscious level. Just remember for a minute learning to ride a bicycle or drive a stick shift. At first, every movement requires conscious attention. We are unable to think about anything else while learning these complex skills. But, when we do learn them, we no longer consciously think about them. They've moved to unconscious processing leaving the conscious brain free to consider how to solve our current staffing problem, decide which route to take home, and what to have for dessert after dinner. This move of routine, learned behaviors and ideas from conscious to unconscious processing is adaptive. (Wilson, 2002) But, it means that much of what we do is not actively being thought about. So, if the stick shift we learned to drive on was a three-speed and our new car is a six-speed, then we need to be able to do two things: we must recognize that the now unconscious process of driving at three-speed is no longer applicable, and we must move the learning of the six-speed process to consciousness. The stick shift change from three-speed to six-speed compels the move from unconscious to conscious processing. The same holds true for a variety of other things we “learn” and move to unconscious processing.

Said another way, Timothy D. Wilson, writing in Strangers to Ourselves, says:

Implications of nonconscious processing for prejudice: One of the most interesting properties of the adaptive unconscious is that it uses stereotypes to categorize and evaluate other people. William Carpenter presaged this work more than a century ago, by noting that people develop habitual ‘tendencies of thought’ that are nonconscious and that these thought patterns can lead to ‘unconscious prejudices which we thus form, [that] are often stronger than the conscious; and they are the more dangerous, because we cannot knowingly guard against them’.” (Wilson, 2002, p. 11)

Our ability to embrace diversity in its broader definition described below may in part be a result of this bifurcated thinking: conscious/unconscious. Harvard University's research on how people can express no bias as to differences and yet behave differently suggests this is so. [Harvard University is doing some intriguing research on the notion of implicit bias. This research suggests that we may hold consciously an unbiased, non-discriminatory view, but unconsciously hold a biased, discriminatory view. Go to www.implicit.harvard.edu for more information and to take a self-assessment.]

img    Insight: Our routine thinking processes move repetitive thinking to the unconscious where it is no longer subject to conscious oversight. While efficient, it doesn't allow updates to this unconscious thinking. We can literally be of two minds: the conscious and the unconscious. In the project environment, we must be aware of this characteristic and be diligent in moving from awareness to self-reflection to action.


Researchers suggest that in an evolutionary sense we are pre-wired to optimally function within a group, family or tribe, a relatively small group of people all generally like us. We recognize our family or tribe members as safe…as one of us (Lane & Banaji, 2004) and that prejudice or bias results both from our sense of affiliation with our group, the ingroup, and from our derogation of the others, the outgroup. The stronger our ingroup affiliation, the stronger our outgroup derogation. (Lane & Banaji, 2004). We may see others; those not like us, at an unconscious level as a potential threat.

img Insight: Humans naturally treat people who are like them better than people who aren't. This is our evolutionary inheritance. It's not our fate, since we have a conscious mind as well as an unconscious one. Our treatment of others is inversely proportional to how strongly affiliated we are with our own group. Thus, the more we define differences in terms of like me/not like me, the more estranged we are likely to be from others. This innate characteristic works against our achieving the incredible value of realizing the benefits of the rich diversity of backgrounds and experiences of our project team members.

Confirmation bias

Another shortcut our busy brains take is confirmation bias which is our tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms our preconceptions. It is the tendency to notice, seek out, and value what confirms our beliefs, and to ignore, not seek out or devalue the relevance or importance of what contradicts our beliefs. Therefore, there is a natural instinct for people of similar backgrounds to feel most comfortable with each other and to avoid bringing others into the group.

img Insight: We have a bias to assume the negative --- act first, think later when threatened. And, we simply our thinking by moving routine thinking from conscious thought to unconscious processing where it is not as available to review and revision and we tend to focus on the data that supports our initial position. It's a wonder that we make the progress we do! In the project environment we must be cognizant of the confirmation bias and willingly reexamine initial positions when appropriate.

Moral Circle

Another important concept considered was of a moral circle (Singer, 1993) the group of people that we treat as part of our tribe. Singer believes that our moral systems are part of our evolutionary inheritance in this ability to discriminate between kin and non-kin. We begin by treating our kin, close family, favorably and then extend it through time and experience to include all others to whom we would extend the same treatment as those in our family. Those not in our moral circle are useful to us, ignored by us, or an obstacle to us and we behave towards them accordingly.

img Insight: The ingroup/outgroup phenomenon isn't rigidly fixed. Through experience and conscious action we are able to expand our ingroup, expand our moral circle to include people beyond our kin relationship. In a project environment we are quite able to learn to value and respect the contributions of highly diverse people.

Positive Emotions

Positive emotions (Fredrickson,2003) have evolved not as the antidote to negative emotions, but as an important emotional state in their own right. Fredrickson's Broaden and Build Theory (Fredrickson & Branigan, 2005) postulates the humans experience positive emotions because they are beneficial to our survival, once the risk of being eaten by the saber-toothed tiger is resolved. These emotions include joy, hope, optimism, love, contentment, gratitude, enthusiasm, empathy and curiosity. They help us grow as people; energize us for positive action and problem solving; improve the quality of our relationships; broaden our range of thinking and actions; and cause us to explore and approach novel objects, people and situations. (Fredrickson, 2003)

A researcher at Temple University in Philadelphia has determined that positive emotions influence our ability to identify people outside of our racial group as individuals. This begins the process of expanding our ingroup or kinship group --- expanding our moral circle. Positive emotions move us to be more inclusive and tolerant (Fredrickson, 2003).

img Insight: Positive emotions have a strong evolutionary purpose to help us build psychological, social, cognitive and emotional capital (Fredrickson & Branigan, 2005). These emotions encourage us to take risks, to approach the unknown or unfamiliar. They enhance our ability to view others as individuals rather than as part of the outgroup. Learning how to effectively utilize positive emotions in managing project teams is an essential element of building a high performance team and a positive work environment (Fredrickson & Losada, 2005)

Win/Win Thinking

The I'm-in-you're-out thinking that diversity initiatives hoped to remedy in the workplace have in retrospect the character of a win/loss transaction. Robert Wright writing in Nonzero argues that the course of human evolution is for societies to become ever more complex and interdependent, built on technology, and political and social systems. These systems get ever larger through time, having moved from kinship groups to communities to towns to larger and larger affiliations becoming nations and alliances of nations. If people in a minority class are included, then naturally, someone else must be excluded. If someone is excluding members of a minority class, then there is a perpetrator and a victim. This win/loss character of the diversity discussion sets up an environment in which people on both sides of the transaction are threatened.

img Insight: Substituting win/win thinking or non-zero-sum thinking permits both sides of the transaction to attain positive objectives. This encourages further engagement for future transactions. Creating a positive work environment that focuses on performance outcomes for the project team enhances the likelihood of achieving strategic business objectives.

By understanding how negative emotions, adaptive unconscious, ingroup/outgroup, moral circles, positive emotions, and win/win thinking can influence our thinking and effect our performance as individuals and teams we can move toward embracing our differences as positives that enrich potential performance.

Redefining Diversity:

Diversity is defined by Webster's as “quality, state, fact or instance of being diverse; difference; variety.” Diversity means different. Interestingly, diversity in the workplace has really come to mean including people who because of race, nationality, gender, etc. were not considered quite as good as the majority. It's a limited, rather negative model of diversity.

Diversity is reflected in many ways. The obvious differences of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, disability and age are all familiar to us. We can easily call to mind the stereotypes.


Consider the middle-aged man in the business suit versus the young African-American man in the Hip-Hop clothes. What stories do we tell ourselves about these two people? What if the middle-aged man were African-American, too? Did you, too, assume that the middle-aged man in the business suit was Caucasian?


If you speak with a drawl, or don't use the King's English, if your accent is Middle Eastern or you overuse colloquialisms, if you use “street vernacular” or prefer your native tongue, what stories we tell ourselves about you?


Consider those two special states in the U.S.: Texas and California. What stories do we tell ourselves about a person simply based on which part of the country they are from?

Family Status

Married women with children are less reliable employees than married men with children. Unmarried men are less reliable than married men in the workforce. What stories are we telling ourselves?


It carries some of the same baggage as age. It causes those with similar educational backgrounds to assemble in cliques to the exclusion of others. Those more educated are often viewed as better and smarter, therefore more valuable to the workforce. What stories do we tell ourselves about the lawyer and the electrician?


The young are flighty and irresponsible and their elders are inflexible to technological change.

img Insight: Defining diversity or differences in terms of broad, but identifiable categories of people provides quick categorization. It gives us a limited view of who people are and it is not strengths-focused. It doesn't tell us anything at all about the possible unique contributions available from this individual. Redefining diversity to include differences at the individual level with an emphasis on what do they contribute to the workplace is needed to move from neutral to optimal. Diversity needs to expand to embrace the positive.

Diversity as it has been historically used is divisive. You belong to this group and I belong to that one. It's a matter of exclusion and categorization. We are, however, diverse in much broader and more meaningful ways. We have different personalities, strengths, weaknesses, technical skills, gifts, emotional intelligence, social skills, conflict styles, leadership styles, learning styles, creativity, resilience, endurance, education, aptitudes, interests, capabilities. The potential list is endless.

img Insight: It is this granular meaning of diversity where project management success in this millennium will be found.

A Language of True Diversity

When we talk about diversity in all of its forms, we use the terms acceptance or tolerance. When we say I'm accepting of differences, however, it may mean no more than a lack of desire to change a particular situation. It doesn't mean I like it or that I value it.

Tolerance has been a key word in the diversity dialogue as well. It has long been a goal of the diversity initiatives. Tolerance is often used as the antithesis to discrimination. It implies both the ability to punish and the conscious decision not to. It permits the existences of differences, diversity. It allows for the disapproval of different individuals while allowing the group be left alone, undisturbed, physically and otherwise, and free from inflammatory and inciting criticism.

Tolerance and acceptance are the words of the move from deficit to neutral.

img Insight: After decades collectively in the workplace the authors came to an inflection point: tolerance and acceptance of diversity in the workplace isn't the goal. It's a halfway point. Rather, the more meaningful terms are appreciate and embrace. These words indicate that we find value in the differences, the key shift from weakness or deficit or strength. Appreciation and embracing are not passive as are tolerance and acceptances. They are active. They engage us with each other based on the best in each of us. These words expand our moral circle, our ingroup, and encourage win/win thinking.

The language of diversity initiatives has been primarily about a few, relatively obvious differences. The focus is that we are not like one another. This tends to enhance our separation into our kinship-like groups. Focusing instead on shared characteristics can build the kinship-like groups. There is research (Park et al, 2006) done relative to how the VIA Character Strengths and Virtues Classification reflects on countries around the world. The results are rather astonishing and heartening: we are more alike than different as to what we all believe constitute character strengths.

img Insight: We are more similar than different in the most fundamental ways. Diversity in the next millennium has the opportunity to build on those similarities in values and on each individual's strengths.

Conclusion in Process: Evolving Successfully into the New Millennium

People and how they flourish in the workplace is the key to sustainable competitive advantage in the emerging global market. The significant and expanding gap between the available supply of workers and the growing demand for them is increasing the pressures on businesses generally and project teams in particular to staff key strategic initiatives. Companies and organizations are increasingly challenged by competitive and cost pressures to outsource.

U.S. diversity initiatives have resulted in the inclusion in the workforce of previously excluded groups and provided avenues for redress of unfair or discriminatory treatment once there. But these initiatives have focused, properly at the time, on eliminating a deficit --- the exclusion of selected groups from the workforce and the expectation and reality of fair treatment.

Now we have the opportunity to evolve into the next millennium of project management and to broaden our definition of diversity to incorporate all of the differences among us with the intent of bringing the best of each of us to the workplace.

To do this effectively, we must understand at a more subtle level how we view people not like ourselves. We must understand our evolutionary inheritance of negative emotions, positive emotions, how our unconscious simplifies the world into quick categories depending upon our conscious to think it over later, and we must move to win/win thinking.

Respecting and embracing individual talents when added to project management technical excellence potentially yields high performance project teams.

Davis, J.S. & Cable J. H. (2006). The positive workplace: enhancing individual and team productivity. Published in the proceedings of the PMI North Global Congress, Seattle, Washington.

Fredrickson, B.L. (1998, September). What good are positive emotions? Review of General Psychology, 2(3), 300-319.

Fredrickson, B.L. (2001, March). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: the broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. American Psychologist, 56 (3) 218-226.

Fredrickson, B.L, (2003, July/August). The value of positive emotions. American Scientist, 91(4) 330-335.

Fredrickson, B.L. (2004, September 29). The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, (Biological Sciences), 359(1449), 1369-1377.

Fredrickson, B.L. & Branigan, C. (2005). Positive emotions broaden the scope of attention and thought-action repertoires. Cognition and Emotion 19(3), 313-332.

Fredrickson, B.L. & Losada, M. (2005, October) Positive affect and the complex dynamics of human flourishing. American Psychologist 60(7) 678-686.

Park, N., Peterson, C., & Seligman, M.E. P. (2006). Character strengths in fifty-four nations and the fifty U.S. states. The Journal of Positive Psychology 1(3), 118-129.

Peterson, C. & Seligman, M.E.P. (2004). Character Strengths and Virtues. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Seligman, M.E. P. ( 2002). Authentic Happiness. New York: The Free Press.

Singer, P. ( 1993). Practical Ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wilson, T.D. (2002). Strangers to Ourselves. Cambridge, MA: The Belnap Press.

Wright, R. (2001). Nonzero. New York: Vintage Books.

Wysocki, R. K. , (2002) Building Effective Project Teams. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

© Hicks, Davis, Cable
Originally published as part of 2007 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Atlanta,



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