Diversity Is Changing
The thing about reminiscing is that we’re always so sure that we’re clear in our memories of that storied period in our past. Our brain’s memory bits are right next to our brain’s emotional bits so our most vivid memories are often ablaze with emotion of one sort or another. They’re vivid but they’re not necessarily accurate. Memories are not like videos on a shelf in your mind that get replayed exactly over and over again. Memories are reconstructions and are ripe for, and rife with, editorial input, director’s cuts and selective editing. Even if they’re accurate and honest, often they’re memories of perceptions and who knows how accurate our perceptions were at the time? This is all too true of nostalgia for time periods generally, not just personal recollections. How many people in the 60s were really at Woodstock, Vietnam or Martin Luther King’s speech?
People are now nostalgic for the 90s. Me too. I loved working in offices where anyone could smoke anywhere anytime and being powerless to do anything about soaking up all those second-hand carcinogens. (Sorry, ‘pre-loved’ carcinogens.) As a rookie workplace trainer, the 90s were when I first encountered efforts at workplace diversity. [Spoiler alert – this paragraph will finish cynically.] We were developing a training programme for some software that was going to be used in stores throughout a national network of franchisee outlets. The organisation was technically a Government organisation but was one of the most commercially-oriented ones (when it suited.) Accompanying the training was a workbook. We were at the draft stage and the text had all been tested and approved. To dolly it up a bit and appeal to those visual learning types, we were going to add some illustrations. I forget the order of things and who said what but the conclusion was that we needed to be sensitive to the variety of races and cultures in the network of trainees.
Who could have a problem with that? Not me, then or now. What delights me looking back is how that intended sensitivity manifested itself. One option might’ve been to have a range of photographs, perhaps actual images of actual staff from the network, or even stock photos. Photo shoots took time and money so that was abandoned fairly early on. The subsequent debate over stock photos included whether we should include the best diversity photos we could find even if they had African Americans in them as you don’t get a lot of African Americans in Tuatapere. In the end, we were told to get an artist to sketch a group of raceless, genderless, anthromorphised balls to act as the characters in the workbook. We solved the diversity conundrum of the melting pot of humanity by leaving out humans entirely. Easier, cheaper, safer.
Flash forward and we’ve come a long way. No more workplace smoking, rap has hardened up a tad and socks are much less fluorescent. We have a Sky Tower now. Do we still have a diversity conundrum? Or has it become a dilemma? A conundrum is a confusing problem whereas a dilemma is a choice between two equally bad options. Let’s take a management technique from the 90s and call our dilemma / conundrum an opportunity!
Diversity in nature is a strength and a protection. Diversity has an evolutionary purpose of diversity. If a species of organism was entirely homogenous and they suddenly encountered a potentially fatal virus then the entire species’ survival is at risk. But with diversity within organisms, there is a greater than zero percent chance than some will survive. Organisations and, workplaces, are the same. Homogenous is great for milk, not so great for groups of people. If an executive team is made up entirely of one ilk (let’s pick one at random – white males over fifty) and that organisation encounters a business challenge that they don’t have a frame of reference for, then the organisation’s survival is at risk.
Even for the genuinely cynical – you know, the ones who shriek “political correctness” every time something like diversity gets a mention – would find benefits in a more diverse workforce. The country is more diverse. Your organisations customers / clientbase is more diverse. Even if all you care about is profits or keeping your job, you are more likely to when the decision-makers and the people doing the work more proportionately reflect the people they’re serving.
I regret using the word “ilk” a couple of paragraphs ago. I was in the USA recently and walked into a conversation of parents talking about their feelings towards their teenagers’ choices of boyfriends and girlfriends. I said I did have concerns that maybe mine had chosen the wrong ilk. Two days later, someone finally told me that with my kiwi accent, they thought I’d said “elk” not “ilk.” Yet no one seemed concerned that I had said that my daughter was dating an elk, and not only an elk, but the wrong elk. I guess they weren’t really my friends because friends don’t let friends daughters date moose-like creatures.