Story behind the Passage
A few years ago, it must have been in 2015, I gave a talk about diversity management in front of an academic association of cultural and literary studies scholars. To make a long story short: They ripped me apart. Well, not all of them, of course. Just some of the professorial establishment and some of their junior successors. These are people who get allergic to anything that has “management” in the title. They do not care that they have no clue about what management is. They simply hate it. And thus they hated my talk.
I had one image in the presentation they apparently hated the most. It was a colorful birthday cake with many different layers and white icing. It was meant to represent the beauty of diversity. At least, that was my intention. They almost threw me off stage. I had no idea what I had just done. Then they told me the white icing is racist. This is when I lost any hope in my field — in academia at large.
I do not blame the people specifically. You know, they just chose to define diversity as race, class, and gender. That is it. That is fine. It is their perspective. And from their perspective, I had a blind spot when it came to race. I would have liked to tell them about my time in Ghana as the only white person around. When babies look at you and start screaming like hell because they have never seen a white person before. But I did not tell them. They would not understand what diversity can be about. I just chose a different life with a lot more diversity. It does not make life easier but a lot more beautiful and exciting. But that always depends on the individual perspective, of course. These people are probably also happy, I do not know. They will just never personally experience all the diversity out there. Or maybe they have by now, I do not know.
I will not ask them again. I feel no urge to engage with them. I tried. There is not much more you can do. Actually, you should not. Trying to deal with people who simply do not have a positive impact and you and our life is the worst thing you can do to your health. Yes, human beings have a tendency to do this, particularly women. But it is no good. You should chase the people that inspire you, that you can learn from. I cannot learn much from academics who talk about diversity all the time without once looking at what other academics in different fields have to say about this.
When I say diversity, I am referring to (intra-)personal diversity today. I even added that in the title to make sure that no one will jump at me claiming that I am racist because I bring up the argument that there might even be “too much” diversity. Well, when speaking of diversity in organizations, there can be too much if there is no management interference, i.e., a pluralism that simply leads to arguments without any control. That is destructive and needs a lot of managerial attention to be handled in a productive way. Well, but diversity management is not what people know about in my field anyways. I will still talk about management also in the context of personal diversity.
So, what do I mean by personal diversity? I mean the diversity that one individual can comprise in his/her personality. This diversity can mean that you are a musician and a natural scientist, speaking five languages, having experience in several different professions, coming from a working class background now living in a privileged neighborhood, having traveled to the richest and the poorest countries in the world, being very funny and very serious at the same time, playing tennis and playing chess, loving hiking and loving swimming, being a woman who loves women and men, being black with an almost completely white circle of friends, writing books and working as a mechanic, reading philosophy books and scientific studies and watching junk TV, wearing jeans on some days and the finest suits on others, having an IQ above 130 and working among dumb heads…
Do you get what I mean by personal diversity?
People who know me always say that I am so diverse, that I combine so many different facets and act in many different worlds. Yes, I know that by now. And yes, I embrace it. But yes, there can be too much of this on certain days. People have written about managing this personal diversity in the context of scanner personalities. Barbara Sher was the pioneer in this field. Yes, I enjoyed her writing at a certain point in my life. Still, there is a lot of marketing to this kind of coaching approach to personal diversity. That holds true for all kinds of personality disorders, if you will. Being a scanner is not a disorder but the point is: The problem is always where you shift you focus. And people writing books about stuff like this make you look so closely that almost everyone will end up seeing this problem in him-/herself.
The thing is, we are all diverse in so many ways but diversity is like a muscle. If you decide to train it, i.e., by following your many interests, the muscle grows bigger. And, of course, a muscle like this asks for more practice and wants to explore new training fields and manage new challenges. Then, there is no return. Yes, a muscle can shrink if you do not practice anymore. But your body does not forget what it felt like when your muscle was bigger. And if you liked that, if you learned so many new things, why would you give it up? The strength that you developed becomes part of you, even if the muscle might look smaller or people simply do not pay attention to it that much.
Well, I do not want to overdo it with the muscle example here. What I wanted to say is that, since all human beings have muscles and can grow them, we all have a certain capacity for personal diversity — some more, some less, of course. The problem is just that this experience changes you forever. The distance to the people who just follow their one-way street grows to a point where you feel no relation to them at all. This is when you actually need some diversity management yourself.
Taylor Cox was one of the pioneers in the field of diversity management; in theory and practice. I read the book Cultural Diversity in Organizations for my habilitation research project. Now, for the publication, I ended up taking out all the diversity management stuff again. The book would simply be too packed and confusing for the audience if I kept it in there. Still, I am unhappy about the fact that these chapters cannot be read. Today, I therefore decided I will put together all my diversity pieces in a book. Having masses of articles and books sitting on my hard drive makes no sense, especially if people can use that knowledge for their own work. And using diversity to maximize its value is what diversity management is all about.
“By managing diversity I mean planning and implementing organizational systems and practices to manage people so that the potential advantages of diversity are maximized while the potential disadvantages are minimized.” Is it not so cool to read this sentence whilst knowing that the book was written almost three decades ago? How innovative a thinker can you be? Well, of course, we have to remember that the U.S. has always been ahead with respect to managing large corporations and concerning the aspect of cultural heterogeneity due to its history. Still, it is quite astonishing that this sentence could just as well be found in a contemporary management book or magazine on leadership.
Cox is describing the essence and rationale of diversity management here on the organizational level. That, of course, is the original and still valid use of the concept. What I now want to briefly discuss is the use of diversity management for individual diversity. That sounds weird? Well, it is not that weird if you start understanding that the same difficulties that can occur among many people with diverse backgrounds can also occur if there is only one person that combines a huge variety of diverse personality traits, skills, and interests. And no, I am not talking about a mere borderline issue here. That might in many cases be part of it, especially for artists and writers, but it does not get us to the more positive side.
And this positive side is what diversity is all about. I frequently freak out when people talk about diversity aspects only as a sub-topic of minority-discourse and equal rights. Yes, equal rights and equality of chances are essential, no doubt, we do not even need to discuss this, at least not on the normative level. But especially if yo want to convince pessimists or even opponents of the value of diversity in practice, you need to talk about the benefits of diversity, the “advantages” that Cox is talking about.
“Oh, sure, we live in a democracy and every voice needs to be heard,” some people might say now. Yes, of course, all this is nice but no, this is not what I am talking about. The major benefit for any organization, institution, or even a state goes one step further: If you have all these different perspectives represented you are able to solve problems a lot better because there are hardly any blind spots left. Here is an exercise to show you what I am talking about:
Just look at some object right in the room/place where you are sitting right now while reading this. You see one side of this object, right (unless the object is placed right in front of a mirror)? Now, imagine, I would ask you to describe the opposite side of this object in detail. And I mean, in detail — every single detail of the other side, including, size, color, imprint, texture… And now imagine that 1 million Euros and your job depended on how detailed your description is. Would you not be more than happy to have a second person help you with the challenge, a person that is sitting on the other side of the room and very close to the object?
This is what diversity is — you fix problems because the blind spots are reduced to a minimum. In addition, as a team, you become more innovative. Because innovation is also a kind of problem solving, a mixed team happens to be more creative — on average. Of course, there are exceptions and you cannot simply generalize diversity to be good for everyone and everything. However, what I simply wanted to explain is that this is the VALUE that diversity helps create. The fact that people have equal rights and should be treated like one treats human beings in a civilized country is self-evident.
Diversity means individualism.
Now, transfer this scenario to the level of one person. Just imagine that, because you are the way you are, because you are very diverse, you have the ability to already see this object from many different sides, even though, to an outsider, you are also only sitting in this one place from which you can only see one side. But because of who you are, maybe you have a photographic memory and you exactly memorize what the other side of the object looks like. Or, you have figured out a way to analyze the other side of the object based on some technology you can use right where you are sitting. Or, you have a completely different approach to saving the 1 million Euro jackpot that completely avoids the challenge of describing the object.
You see where this is going? All these examples are fictional but this is exactly the way one feels in that position of the diverse outcast. You see more than the others without even knowing it for a long time. You are often capable of doing things nobody else can do. But the problem is: The others cannot see it. And you cannot express it. And without expression, clarification, there is usually no understanding; no acceptance, no acknowledgement. What people might see in the end is the result which you are achieving based on your personal diversity. And sometimes, they might wonder how this could be done. But in order to get there, you need to fight or rather “manage” your own demons.
These demons do not go away by neglecting your diversity. As I mentioned before, there is no point of return if you have ever experienced the immense benefits of combining so much diversity in one person. This diversity is something that becomes part of you. If you took it away, if that were even possible, it would be like poking you in the eye. You lose your unique vision. No diversity mindfuck should gain the power of doing this to you. No other people with their nearsightedness should make you give up or deny that diversity.
However, the flip side, the “potential disadvantages” that Cox also mentions in the organizational context, calls for solutions. In my case and in the case of most people I know that have the burden and the blessing of much personal diversity, the only solution is to break all chains. There is only maximization from that point onwards, no holding back. If you like speaking four languages and you are interested in learning two more — go for it. If you are excellent in three different sports, go learn the next one, and practice. If you already built two companies successfully, why not build the next one if you have that great idea on your mind and you are burning to get it off the ground?
That sounds crazy, you are saying now?
No, it is just natural for those who give a shit about others who prefer to get pissed off at white icing on a cake on some Powerpoint slide. These people will never see the world from so many perspectives. They will always continue traveling to one country only, writing papers about one topic only, hanging out with one group of people only. And they will still insist on their far-reaching insights, their good-hearted nature, and their intention to promote “diversity.”
That is o.k. We all have one life on this planet only. We all choose to make the best of it based on whatever nature equipped us with. We can manage.
“Nothing happens to anybody which he is not fitted by nature to bear.” — Marc Aurel
1) What kind of diversity is most important in your company/work place?
2) What is a hidden diversity dimension that others do not see/on you?
3) Whenever you are in a leadership position, how do you make sure that a diversity of perspectives is ensured?