Why most organizations hate real diversity (Guest commentary)

Corporate experience sometimes still valued over entrepreneurship

Growing up in a Jewish home, I never really understood the disappointment a child feels when he finally learns there is no Santa. That was until recently. After 11 years of having my own consulting practice, I decided to join a large and fast-growing human resource consulting practice.

A friend who worked there told me it was a good place to work and I went through four months of interviews and psychological assessments. I read the books it had published and was familiar with its good reputation for teaching leadership and best employment practices to many organizations. It was a high-end consulting firm that charged top dollar and seemed to have a good reputation.

I was going to be working with people who would understand and value what made me different. I was going to learn how these great thinkers were able to apply what they taught to create what should be the perfect workplace, which I was going to be joining.

Boy, was I wrong. No, Virginia, there is no Santa Claus.

My “welcome to the company” consisted of my manager greeting me on the first day with, “There is your desk. I know today is going to be a write-off. I’ve gotta go.”

My next opportunity to sit down with her one-on-one was a month later, when she blasted me for “not fitting in” and then fired me a week later because I “didn’t have the ‘X’ factor.”

What is the “X” factor? It is some nebulous, non-measurable intangible that I seemed to be inoculated against.

“You just don’t fit in here,” I was told. “You are too different.” I was terminated even though I had to finish my only client assignment through the firm because the client liked my work. (Now I really understand why people don’t like consultants.)

It was at the moment when I was let go for not having the “X” factor that I truly understood what diversity means and why so few organizations understand and promote it.

Superficial diversity

Ask any organization about diversity and they will produce wonderful, colourful pie charts (boy, do organizations love colourful pie charts) and they will tell you how many people are in various age ranges, of different nationalities, backgrounds, colours, religions, sexes and whatever other breakdown you want.

“Hey, look how diverse our organization is,” they proudly proclaim. They even hire high-priced consultants, who have PhDs and share with them some insight gleaned by an academic doing research and tell them how to create a “diverse” workforce and how important that is to doing business. What they neglect to tell anybody, or even realize themselves, is that this is not real diversity.

Real diversity is not measured by skin colour, religion, age, sex or a number of other superficial benchmarks. Although having a different background may help people to think differently, it does not necessarily mean people will. For instance, there is less diversity between George Bush and Condoleezza Rice or between Whoopi Goldberg and John Kerry than there is between my older brother and myself.

There was a scene in the 2004 remake of the movie The Stepford Wives where the gay character is initiated into the “Men’s Club” and they tell him about how they have transformed their wives.

“We are open-minded about lifestyle choices,” says the character Mike. “We don’t care about your partner. We can make him into a Stepford wife.”

It did not matter if you were gay or straight, as long you thought like everybody else. It is the same with many organizations. We live in a global society. There are not the glass ceilings and Old Boys clubs like there were even 15 years ago. There are laws in place to ensure employment is not based on differences of gender and nationality.

Stepford, Conn., could accept gay and black people, it seemed, as long as they conformed their thinking to the groupthink. Like the consulting firm, all differences were accepted as long as you thought and acted just like everybody else. In other words, all new ideas are welcome as long as they are just like your manager’s.

A definition of real diversity

Real diversity is defined as people thinking differently. Real diversity makes sense because an organization that has everybody becoming an “X” factor means the conclusions and ideas they develop will all be uniform.

They will be, by definition, a step behind the cutting edge. Cutting-edge thinking means challenging the norm, and thinking just like everybody else is the norm. I know a very successful businessperson who told me to always hire my enemies. “They will tell you what you need to know, what your friends may be afraid to say,” he said.

Yet, organizations work very hard to find people who fit the culture. Valuing corporate experience over entrepreneurship means an organization really wants people who know how to keep their heads low — people who won’t rock the boat. The idea is to keep your head low, do not be a threat to your boss’ ego, and you will be okay. After all, everybody loves the janitor.

There is and always will be a war for top talent and it is the duty of the environment to activate the skill set of its people so the organization can grow. If an organization doesn’t incorporate the diversity that comes from having the best talent available, its competitors will, and they will thrive while it struggles to survive.

Michael Rosenberg is a partner at Achieve Blue in Toronto and the author of The Flexible Thinker and co-author of The Flexible Thinker: A Guide to Extreme Career Performance. For more information visit www.achieveblue.com.

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