Is good diversity management different from good management?
Yes. Managers are generally considered good when they bring work in on time and on budget. That doesn't have to require any diversity intelligence. It doesn't necessarily require any feeling for, or attention to, what we would call acknowledging, honoring, or leveraging issues of difference.
Diversity-wise management adds other dimensions to good management. It is attuned to different signals and frequencies, it picks up on different cues, it has a different repertoire of ideas and attitudes. It has an additional bottom line, a multiplier effect, an added dimension of performance.
Managers don't necessarily think about organizational culture, group dynamics, or an optimal environment for the health and wellbeing, learning and creativity, of the people or the projects they manage. There are plenty of Theory X, Y, or Z managers and other varieties of goal-oriented, task-focused, operational, instrumental, managers who do very well according to their measurements of achievement, without regard to cultural differences or other personal, interpersonal, or social variables. Management that takes cultural diversity into account is a kind of meta-management. It is above and beyond the call of duty, the job description, even the common measures of outstanding performance.
There are many diversity-tuned variables and vibrations that good managers ignore, which just don't register on their radar screen. Diversity-informed or diversity-alert managers look at work and people differently, they take different factors into account, their antennae pick up different information and process it differently.
Example: A senior architect was known as the best project manager in his firm. One day I mentioned to him that the people in his team were Chinese, Dutch, Armenian, African-American, Jewish. "Does that matter?" he said. "Yes," they all replied in unison. "I've never thought of that," he said.
Example: Top managers in the U.S. headquarters of a company that operates in 80 countries are resisting a proposal that they should invest some effort in learning about cultural experiences and perspectives outside the U.S. They don't see the need.
Example: A group of managers in one company never had a discussion about the comfort level of people in the organization.
Example: Senior managers at a sexual harassment workshop acknowledged they had never talked about cultural differences in gender roles, relations and assumptions, even though the people in their division represented a dozen cultures from around the world..
Example: In a staff session on diversity, a senior human resources manager said, "Shouldn't people try to be as neutral as possible?" He meant, isn't there a universal norm, a common denominator that everyone should adhere to in order to get by, to blend in.
This reminds me of the story that no method of education was shown in 40 years of research to be superior to any other method, when measured by test results in a final exam. But the journeys to the finals were quite different, and the things that people learned that were not on the exam were different. Same with schools of therapy-if one were demonstrably more effective, everyone would use it, instead of the hundred varieties that are practiced by equally qualified professionals.
Managing that is diversity-positive is different from managing that is indifferent to diversity, as evidenced by its effects and side effects, its direct and indirect payoffs and fringe benefits. The dimensions and dynamics of diversity become more important the more managing is viewed holistically. A systems approach would bring out its importance.
I think it is too facile to equate good management with management that takes into account any of the parameters or disturbances of diversity. They are different "thinking styles" (in Robert J. Sternberg's phrase in his book of that title), different kinds of practice. Conscious, intentional, deliberate management for diversity does not flow automatically from customary schools of management. It must be cultivated.
I suppose any good manager has some skills with people. I am trying to raise the bar, so I want the criteria for "goodness" to be higher. For one thing, I don't want holistic management to be considered a "soft" skill.
I want to place diversity in a larger context-linked to increasing organizational capability and intelligence, and therefore part of management of a Gaian organization. I think this is a different mental/systems model than most managers use. Most managers measure their success in their cost center, operationally, one transaction or project at a time. A lot of "stuff" can build up or fall between the cracks that way. And I'm interested in that "stuff," which is what diversity is.
Let me put it this way--if this diversity "stuff" were already part of the manager's repertoire, why has there been any need for training on diversity? If this is already part of the package of good management why is it so hard to find any organization that is a benchmark national model for how to have organizational diversity? Why would there still be a need for any attention to diversity? I guess what some are calling "people stuff" is not what I'm calling diversity stuff. That's my point. If they think it's happening, how come it's not?


--published in Managing Diversity, June 1998