By Paul Pelletier
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” – Maya Angelou
HR professionals and project management leaders who leverage diversity to develop, motivate and empower people to achieve extraordinary results are not acting randomly. In our highly diverse workplaces, diversity intelligence is critical to success.
By aligning diversity intelligence (DI) with leadership strategies and communication practices to ensure a truly collaborative, inclusive and engaging work environment, we can inspire high-performance teams and improve organizational and project success. DI, like other skills, is a competency that requires learning and constant improvement. As the dynamics of our diverse workplaces change, so must we.
One of the most effective ways to improve DI is by understanding and overcoming our diversity “blind spots.” This requires both self-awareness and a deeper appreciation that diversity goes well beyond the obvious surface characteristics of people.
What is Diversity Intelligence?
Diversity intelligence involves people understanding each other and moving beyond simple tolerance to embrace and celebrate the rich dimensions of diversity contained within each individual. The concept of DI encompasses acceptance and respect, encouraging the exploration of our differences in a safe, positive, and nurturing environment.
By integrating workers from culturally-diverse backgrounds into their teams, organizations become much stronger and their project success rate improves. Leaders with strong DI ensure that diversity is an integral part of the business plan, essential to successful projects, programs, products and increased sales. This is especially true in today’s global marketplace as organizations interact with different cultures and clients.
Without recognizing it, we tend to regard diversity through the lens of the most obvious physical and superficial traits of those around us. For example, we categorize people along the lines of age, gender, and race. This makes sense insofar as age, race and gender are traits you can see in the flesh. However, these and other physical attributes like skin colour are only a small part of the diversity picture. There are many other characteristics that merit consideration.
The Diversity Iceberg
Behavioural psychologists and social scientists use the “Diversity Iceberg” to demonstrate this problem, wherein visible traits like race, gender and other physical attributes sit at the top above the waterline, while a larger portion of non-visible characteristics lurk below.
The Diversity Iceberg is a marvelous tool to assist in improving our DI. The key point of the illustration is that the core of our identity is made up of the dimensions that exist below the surface. These buried qualities are critical to our individuality and provide the actual essence of diversity.
Our Diversity Blind Spots
Uncovering our personal biases, prejudices and “diversity blind spots” is essential to improving diversity intelligence. First, let’s acknowledge that we find comfort in hanging out with similar people. Whether it’s an ethnic community, a religious connection or a political party, our instinct is to surround ourselves with, and hire, those like us. I call these “diversity comfort zones.”
It’s awkward to move out of the security blanket of diversity comfort zones. These comfort zones can easily lead to group think and reduced innovation; after all, with only one predominant perspective, tunnel vision is natural. There are some excellent tools that help leaders get comfortable with feeling uncomfortable when they venture outside their diversity comfort zones.
It is also normal behaviour to analyze and categorize people so that we can determine where they “fit” in our world. Unfortunately, our categorization processes often involve making presumptions and quick judgments about people based on our preconceived biases and prejudices. For example, when we find out a person is from a particular ethnicity, we may assume they automatically like a particular kind of food or speak another language. This is what I call a “diversity blind spot.” A blind spot represents either a lack of diversity awareness, prejudice, or inaccurate preconceived notions about people. Blind spots can lead to embarrassing workplace moments and unintended offence. They also create biases in workplace practices and stifle creativity.
It’s important to accept the fact that we are conditioned throughout our lives with different behavioural, cultural, and moral standards. These impact how we view others and our workplace behaviour. As social beings, humans naturally gravitate and give preference to that which we can relate. However, if we aren’t aware of our blind spots and biases, we are more likely to hold onto such prejudgments for the sake of prejudice.
Blind spots inevitably lead to misunderstandings and conflicts. They also reduce team engagement and negatively impact our leadership and success. Acknowledging our blind spots improves our self-awareness, maturity and enhances diversity intelligence. It takes effort and character to see beyond our box and respectfully embrace cultures and experiences that differ from ours. Project managers with advanced diversity intelligence have a deep awareness of their biases and adopt strategies to counter their own tendencies to judge and conclude too quickly.
It’s Not About You
As leaders, solving the diversity equation is no easy task. In addition to their own blind spots, leaders must remember that every person they work with has their own conditioning and biases. Leaders should make a constant, concerted effort to be more approachable; in simple terms, this just makes it easier for those who might be uncomfortable interacting with you.
Think about their diversity comfort zones and blind spots. Open up conversations that dispel their fears, erase their preconceived notions and genuinely prove you are interested in who they really are (below the iceberg’s surface). Focus on “them” rather than on “you.” By helping others gain confidence communicating with you, you will also become more comfortable interacting with those different from you.
Diversity intelligence provides project managers and HR professionals with the strategic insight necessary to give that competitive edge we all strive for, regardless of sector or project. That edge lies within understanding and engaging those you lead. The key to harnessing the creative talent within is creating the ideal environment for innovation in the first place.
As a result, organizations, and key leaders throughout, must develop higher levels of diversity intelligence in order to inspire effectively. Doing so creates an environment that values relationships, personal growth, positive reinforcement, and brainstorming—a place (and project) where everyone’s ideas matter.
By appreciating our diversity blind spots and comfort zones and improving our communication strategies practices to focus on those we serve, we improve our diversity intelligence. We grow and mature as leaders. Are you ready to eliminate your diversity blind spots?
Paul Pelletier, LL.B., PMP, is a workplace diversity and respect consultant, international speaker, author, and corporate lawyer. His book “Workplace Bullying – It’s Just Bad for Business” is available on-line. His contact details are available on www.paulpelletierconsulting.com
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Category: Professional Practice