To support diversity, we need the courage to learn to disagree and discover different aspects of each other.

A narrow perception of reality impairs our ability to appreciate diverse perspectives. Here’s how to broaden your human horizon.
To support diversity, we need the courage to learn to disagree and discover different aspects of each other.
Carin-Isabel Knoop & Mel Martin

Our world is both less diverse and more monotonous. We live in smaller circles and join online echo chambers that confirm our worldviews. A narrower perception of reality impairs our ability to appreciate the perspectives — or even the humanity — of others.

At the same time, 2020 displayed inequalities that remain at the very foundation of our society, unveiling — for the privileged — truths known primarily by people of color and the economically disadvantaged. Society remains unequal. We cannot progress if we don’t challenge the very assumptions that brought us to this moment. As Voltaire noted, “Prejudices are what fools use for reason.”

The corporate world is once again vocally and visibly engaged in the business of D&I.

Succeeding in this endeavor will require some changes in our behavior and our views, both shockingly difficult and worth undertaking. Our minds remain as “fallible as they are extraordinary.”

We are protective of our worldviews and scrutinize anything that might encroach on them. This impulse is dangerous, primarily because the world we want to build is by definition different from the one in which we currently live. Although rational and biological, adverse reactions to change can hinder our ability to embrace our new workplaces — and consequently the world we hope to become. If we wish to achieve these ideals, we must also embrace the conflict, disagreement, and difficult conversations that will help us get there.

Tapping into new pools of overlooked talent will be key to developing and maintaining a sustainable talent ecosystem, especially as diverse groups increase as part of the U.S. population.

Fostering an inclusive workplace and a sense of belonging among employees requires encouraging the expression of diversity and the various thoughts and perspectives it affords: race, gender, sexual orientation but also geographic (suburban/urban/rural), and educational (levels and type). This will be the ultimate stress test of our workplace adaptability.

Bias training and hiring efforts in the 1980s fell short of sustainably driving diversity in organizations, and there is little reason not to expect such approaches to disappoint us again today. Even if done in good faith, a half-hearted attempt at D&I might not come across as earnestly as organizational leaders hope. We fear that many organizations have made lofty D&I commitments without the culture in place to carry them out.

Meanwhile, The backlash has begun with the press and observers wondering if the D&I industry has lost its way.

To succeed, we need to move from diversity as a “classic fixes,” e.g., hiring a D&I officer, setting goals for employees of under-represented groups, setting up Affinity Groups, and/or enforcing the Rooney rule (a policy that required leagues in the U.S. National Football League to interview ethnic-minority candidates for head coaching and senior football operation jobs, etc).

To some, these feel like “diversity theater” that is not enough to lead to a mindset change — one that includes critical thinking skills. It is about ensuring that everyone in the organization moves from understanding diversity of persons and positions to truly embracing them, promoting an environment in which people accept the contribution of others.

So how can we not be Voltaire’s fools?

Laying this foundation requires the kind of preparation that very few organizations have undertaken as they lurch ahead with D&I efforts.

Successful gardeners don’t randomly plant seeds across a dusty patch of land. And they certainly do not plant seeds only weeks before harvest. They assess the soil and location, do research, and prep the ground. They leverage years of experience cultivating the proper environment and soil.

Creating a nourishing foundation for a fully engaged and inclusive workforce is similar. In this application, prepping could mean:

1) Defining clearly mutually agreed-upon goals and the meaning of key terms and core values. Demystifying what D&I means to the last mile employee… do we have a common language at an organizational levels?

2) Providing opportunities to practice disagreeing with the status quo and questioning assumptions, and in doing so, help your community understand how our brains work;

3) Ensuring accountability by rewarding those who are adaptive to this new environment, including accepting divergent thoughts; and,

4) Being honest and explicit about what is required — from all of us — for D&I to work, and a clear understanding of how to manage and support constituencies through that change.

As Frances Frei and Anne Morriss wrote, “Simply populating your team with diverse perspectives and experiences doesn’t always translate into better performance. In fact, the uncomfortable truth is that diverse teams can underperform homogeneous teams if they’re not managed actively for differences among team members.”[i]

Cultivate our own garden: challenge what you think you see and who you think others are.

A first step to being more welcoming of diversity is realizing how many untapped and submerged differences we already have in our organizations. We have been trying to build organizations as monocultures, hiring for cultural fit, where viewing diversity as an upgrade to our culture might mean hiring for cultural add.

In some cases, we have privileged superficial markers of culture such as expected dress and behavior over traits like effectiveness and willingness to collaborate or offer an opposing view. We don our professional personas, disguising the distinct features that might give us a competitive edge in our roles. We dress for the parts for which we auditioned, and are rewarded for playing them, leaving little room for innovation and change.

This culture of conformity has meant that companies suppress expressions of diversity. When the alarm bell rings, signaling that we’ve hedged too deeply into the mainstream, we strategize on how we pull in new hires instead of looking internally to embrace diversity within. Hiring to ensure your numbers represent the full spectrum of talent across communities is wise — but making sure they are mentored and able to succeed to enable their diversity to shine is imperative.

At the same time, each employee brings a unique background and set of experiences. The real value of diversity is bringing people with different stories, skills, and heritages to create something unique and new.

However, asking such questions can be awkward — especially with colleagues you have known.

Idea: Enable your teams to expose and see more facets of yourself and of others. To do just that, SetuWorks Private Limited developed a tool to share with their co-workers their different faces by “Casting their Human Dice” — if you conceive yourself as a pair of dice, what 12 dimensions have shaped who you are? The point of this exercise is not to divide ourselves further into tribes; to discover the unique contribution each of us can make to the group from our unique vantage point; and to discover the many common threads that bind us together, which otherwise we fail to notice. It helps us to appreciate and leverage for the combined benefit of every individual, the group and the organization at large. This exercise can also be used at onboarding.

Engage your team and colleagues into creative expressions.

Activities based on art therapy approaches have proved to be powerful tools to connect people in a way that meaningfully and effectively addresses the strengths and needs of a diverse range of individuals. By enabling team members to express internal conflicts, while facilitating their ability to implement change, art making promotes healing and growth in relationships, and can also promote inclusion. Creative arts therapy approaches can be effective ways to maximize your colleagues’ potential to flourish as individuals and team members by acknowledging that we all experience life and work differently.​ It was also promote humility — if people are comfortable doing things they are “bad at it.”

Practice talking about issues that may be considered taboo.

Accepting a new culture, community, or customs requires difficult conversations about difference. We have an aversion to the new and the different in even the most ideal circumstances — such as talking with a close friend or family member.

To fully realize our aspirations, both personally and organizationally, we must embrace discomfort and the challenges of new environments. Freakonomics discusses the science of sensitive questions. We must examine for ourselves and the organizations we lead: What conversations are we avoiding? With whom? What are the dynamics involved? For example, women might hesitate to talk about childcare without fear of reprisals, families don’t talk about caring for elderly parents, and employees don’t know how to talk about stress and mental health.

Managers looking to surface these conversations must question: What is the right forum? Can/should HR handle these issues or are they the purview of a psychologist, counselor, or facilitator? Could a broader use of coaching resources and tools help employees examine their patterns and become better at engaging with others?

Give yourself and others a chance and the tools to appreciate the power of thought divergence.

Soliciting different opinions, getting people to challenge the status quo and authority productively in our emotionally charged environment is fraught with real and emotional danger. So we go quiet. Non-conflict can feel like harmony.

However, with it, our mental muscles that deal with stress and conflict can atrophy. Ideas and people are not the same, and the very ideas that we need to realize the diversity of thought and the community we desire might include ideas that make us uncomfortable.

What can you do? Here are ways to make it easier for minority views to be heard and to introduce these ideas and discomfort while also maintaining some necessary psychological safety:

1. Use polls in meetings. Anonymity might lower the quality of the contributions but can also promote honesty and transparency. However, it weighs all comments equally, and in some instances, you might be particularly interested in what a particular group of employees thinks.

2. Assign a Devil’s advocate. Assign someone to always take a contrary position when an important decision is to be made, say, a new product launch. “The Red Team” is another way to think about this tactic, in which you stress test ideas by having team members assume the role of the opposition. It is important to note that is almost never okay to ambush your team with this tactic. It should be clear who is playing this role ahead of time to maintain a trusting, non-threatening environment to exchange ideas.

3. Make it mandatory for people who defend an idea to attack it respectfully as in the Lincoln Douglas debate rules which have debaters take alternating sides to an issue in a series of debates. This practice should includes leaders and managers.

4. Use tools to better understanding when conversations disappoint. One such tool is the “left-hand column technique” designed by Chris Argyris, Professor Emeritus at Harvard Business School. In this exercise, participants break down what was said, what was thought to be said, and what was thought about what was said. This can help break conversations down into their essential parts, as well as analyze intent and avoid miscommunication. Think about the pros and cons of various communication channels, email vs Slack for example. A Stanford researcher studies how of “psychological distancing” can be used to build trust and encourage tolerance.

5. Participate and encourage others to engage with individuals of different political persuasions (via Braverangels and ) and learn about perception gaps. More than likely, however, there exists far more intellectual diversity in your own team or workplace than you realize (and if there’s not, there should be). We advise you start close to home before looking to the internet.

Harness the latest research in brain science to improve understanding

When we learn more about brain science, we can understand how biases form, and how they might influence and regulate our thoughts and actions. Part of the issue is evolutionary — we pledge our allegiance to “tribes.”

Many of us are still ruled by what Phil Tetlock of the Good Judgement project called “the inner dictator” — a reflex that activates confirmation bias (to prove that our idea was the correct one) and triggers the desirability bias (making it easier for us to see what we want to see). We confuse our beliefs (what we hold to be true) with our values (what we deem important).

Adam Grant’s recent book Think Again echoes the themes of task conflict versus relationship conflicts (in which we ban people from our personal and social lives or ostracize them at work when we disagree with one of their ideas). Unless we are aware of these tendencies and monitoring them constantly, we turn our opinions into our identities — and do the same for others. We confuse feedback on ideas with an ad hominem attack.

Racism, biases, and prejudice often follow a similar pattern of responding to others emotionally rather than analytically. In doing so, we frequently categorize others into groups based on preconceptions and impute views or opinions based on them. Then, without knowing the person, we respond with fear, coalition-seeking, and visceral responses, leading to rejection and dehumanization.

What can you do? Investigating our aversions and our attractions is a critical step in understanding where our culture is now, whom it is designed to fit, and how it might serve a wider variety of people. This takes self-awareness and constant practice. And, more controversially nowadays, it takes a willingness to understand and forgive ourselves and others — and disagree.

Make my garden grow*

Companies preach empowerment, innovation, and risk-taking — which together amount to having employees behave like owners and committed to business outcomes. But in the area of D&I, many of us don’t feel empowered to push back or suggest alternative approaches — nor do we appreciate how difficult it is to drive and measure D&I.

“It is harder to crack prejudice than an atom,” Einstein supposedly said, but we can only hope to do it when D&I efforts are not are being done for or to us, but by us. Let us all be brave enough to acknowledge the challenge and not go through the motions again. We owe it to ourselves, our communities and the generations to come.

About the Author

Authors Mel Martin & Carin-Isabel Knoop are neighbors, friends, and colleagues at Harvard Business School where they help faculty members develop case studies. Cases enable civil classroom debate around a common set of facts — the learning comes from common exploration and divergence in viewpoints. In their writings and being, they seek to bring the beauty of this method to current topics.

  • Leonard Bernstein’s operetta Candide based on Voltaire’s work. The closing song is “Make our garden grow.”

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