One of the most used jargons in any industry is the word “Diversity”. And, most often, it is also one of the most mis-construed. Whatever be the way it is understood, it plays a very important role in organizations and brings in a variety and flavour to the decision-making process. Through this article, I would like to share my thoughts and views on diversity and its importance in organizations.

What is Diversity?

Let us begin with a very fundamental question on “What is Diversity?” As per Wikipedia, “it is a state of having variety”, which means it is a state of having diverse things, or different things coming together for a specific purpose or cause.

As in the definition, the stress is on the differences that come together. The difference could be in any characteristic or virtue of the objects that are being brought together. In the discussion that follows, we will examine some of the differences and how they impact the organization. The difference often gets magnified under stress and stressful situations. And, it is dealing with changes and stressful situations that makes diversity very important in an organization.

No organization is complete without the people that are part of it. In this article, we will focus on the differences or diversity that exists in the people coming together to form the organization. For this discussion, an organization could be a team or many teams.

Gender Diversity

When we talk about people the first universal difference is the gender. And this is the most referred to implicitly when diversity is referred. In fact, recruitment of a women candidate in an organization is colloquially referred to as a “diversity candidate”, for the simple reason that the organization could be consisting of predominantly males.

Physically and psychologically man and woman are structured differently. The physical differences are perceivable, while the psychological differences are subtler and more to be felt. The psychological differences have been the subject matter of several research and lot of books have been published in this area. One such book that highlights and celebrates this difference is, Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, by John Gray. It is a classic guide to understand and survive with the opposite gender. In the book, the author exemplifies the difference between the sexes through the metaphor in the title, meaning the difference is as much as if they are from two different planets. The differences become more pronounced in the way they handle stressful situations. For example, in general, it is believed that women give priority to emotions and sentiments in comparison to men. Any decision involves a mix of rationality, logic, sentiments, intuition etc., and hence, the diverse way of approaching the decision-making problem widens the perspectives.

Today, the third gender of LGBTs is also gaining ground. Sensitivity and involving them in an equal footing into the teams and giving their due representation and place in the team is gaining importance.

Linguistic and Cultural Diversity

Another very common form of diversity that does not get the recognition that it deserves is, the Cultural diversity. Cultural diversity manifests in various forms – diversity (a) due to religious background, (b) due to linguistic background, (c) due to geographical background, (d) political background, etc. The thought process of a person is influenced by external and internal factors. The external factors that influence the thought process are due to the cultural differences, or differences caused as a result of the background in which a person grew up. For example, a person who grew up in a society that is aggressive and violent will think differently from a person who grew up in a calm peace-loving society. Their approach to any problem and its solution will be very different. And, for the completion of the solution, it is important to have the aggressive approach as well as the sobering touch.

Diversity in Thinking

In the previous section we looked at diversity in thinking due to external influences caused by the upbringing. The thinking process is also significantly influenced by reasons that are internal to a person – for example, an introverted person versus an extroverted person.

The two extreme forms of thinkers are the deep-thinker and the shallow thinkers. The deep-thinkers dwell at length on the problem and only after they have done enough justice to exploring the problem deep enough from different perspectives will they move to the next. Such a thinking process will need a lot of time-alone. Hence, such people often are those who like to have their own “alone-time” and are often introverted.

On the other hand, the extroverted people are more aligned to the people around. Their intent is to be with people, amuse and captivate the people around. To be of interest to others, their topic of thought and talk cannot be dwelling on one point for too long, lest they lose their audience. They have to be shallow in their thoughts, while touching up many topics in thought and word.

Another form of difference in thinkers are Objective thinkers versus Subjective thinkers. The objective thinkers are critical thinkers – thinkers who bring in objectivity into their thought process. They consciously look for bias that can possibly creep into their thinking and look for ways to consciously go beyond their biases. Such thinkers are problem solvers and powerful decision makers.

On the other side, the subjective thinkers bring in a lot of creativity in their thinking. They are biased significantly by their feelings, intuition and creativity and may not be able to rationalize, or reason out their thoughts clearly. They are visionaries who can think outside the box.

Why is diversity important?

As we started with, diversity is to do with variety. When dealing with diversity, a lot of different perspectives are brought forth. As we saw in the last section, for example, with a diverse thinker, we could cover the subjectivity or creativity of a problem and its solution, as much as we can deal with the objectivity and critical view of it.

In any team-sports, we need players who have different skill sets. For example, in a cricket team, we have some who are specialist batsmen, some are specialist bowlers and there are others who are all-rounders, who can bat and bowl quite well. If we do not have diversity in the team, we cannot imagine playing a cricket match with eleven specialist batsmen just because the captain happens to be a specialist batsman.

So also, when we talk of a team, people with different skills are very important. Along with skills, when the problem has to do with decision making, the skills that we are requiring is the ability to think along different perspectives. By exploring different perspectives through the diverse nature of the people involved, the resulting solution or decision is expected to be much more reliable, resilient, and stronger. Greater the ambiguity involved in the problem, more perspectives and diversity are needed.

In conclusion

Diversity is a very important aspect of team building. When talking of diversity, we must go beyond the popular reference to gender diversity, and bring in other forms of diversities too, to the organization. A conscious focus is required in building diversity in the team as psychologically a leader will find it tempting to go with people who are in the same wavelength and fall easily in line with his or her thoughts. It requires going beyond such biases to consciously construct a diverse organization and reap the benefits of “Unity in Diversity”.

About the Author

Dr. Anand Lakshmanan is a Senior-Member of IEEE, a Technologist and an Organization builder. He is currently pursuing advisory and consulting roles for EdTech companies, and member of curriculum committee and Senate in Institutes of National repute.

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