I was recently asked during a panel discussion whether diversity matters. I voiced my support for diversity in organizations and commented on how its needed to enable productivity and profitability as workplace demands become greater and greater. It was good discussion, however, the question has stayed with me and forced me to think.
Diversity has a long standing place in the world from the global ecosystem we generically refer to as biodiversity to the variety of foods we are encouraged to eat to be healthy to the type of retirement investing we encouraged to do to ensure our long term financial needs are met. No one ever says “I want to develop a thriving ecosystem so I will plant only one type of plant” or “I want a healthy diet so I will only eat this one vegetable the rest of my life.” Diversity is a given when building a healthy environment over the long term and never questioned…..until it comes to developing thriving ecosystems for human beings. And then, merely using the word becomes a hot button issue.
Why, as human beings, do we expect, in fact demand, diversity in all walks of life, but a discussion of workplace or neighborhood diversity becomes an emotional issue? Personal interactions of any kind are difficult. As human beings, we perceive safety and security in deeply held beliefs, values, and social identities. We also value the perceived safety and security of the status quo. Discussion of diversity whether in our workplace or local community challenges our status quo by challenging our way of thinking, our way of seeing the world, and the way in which we see ourselves and this is uncomfortable.
Given that interacting with people in general is hard and then you throw in the added complexity of communicating with individuals who have different deeply held beliefs, values and social identities, is diversity worth it?
Yes, diversity is worth it to both the individual and the organization or community. Including people in your life who look, think, talk, and act differently expands our own abilities to comprehend and synthesize. These skills strengthen our communication and relationship building and widen the lens through which we see the world. When I am only surrounded by people just like me in skin color, gender, ethnicity, education, profession, world views, and economic status, I remain exactly the same in a world that is continually growing and I get left behind. Diversity in our own lives enables us to grow as humans, develop a wide-ranging support system, and open our minds to greater possibility.
Organizations and communities are ecosystems within themselves and diversity is critical to survival. Nature’s example of biodiversity boosting productivity of the larger ecosystem should be taken to heart by our workplaces and the cities and neighborhoods we live in. Interdependency of species ensures survival; each brings unique services to the larger effort. The same exists with organizations and communities. Each individual brings unique perspective, thinking, and skills to complex questions. The complexity of problems our organizations are facing seem to get more complicated and difficult each day. If organizations and communities are populated with only like-minded people, they too will get left behind in a world that is rapidly growing and changing.
As individuals, we do not seek out diversity in our lives. We are comfortable with others who think, look, and act like us. There is predictability to those interactions. But to grow and change, we have to push ourselves outside of our comfort zones. Increasing the diversity within our own ecosystems will help us do that. The world is rapidly changing and we have to give ourselves every advantage possible to keep up. Diversity gives us that advantage – to learn, to grow, to build relationships, to increase our comfort with change, and to be more rational and caring human beings. The places where we spend the most time, our workplaces and neighborhoods, give us the perfect environment to diversify our ecosystems.
We grow by being around others who expand our boundaries. Look for ways, today, to engage with, interact with, and build relationships with people who are different across many areas to include gender, race, economic status, ethnicity, education, profession, world view and religious background. It will add more to your life than you ever imagined.