Understanding diversity: acknowledging intelligence

I have been thinking about a work-place emphasis on promoting diversity.    What is it that we should be aspiring to achieve?

When we get the occasional updates for diversity sensitivity training, it seems always to be presented as some new never-before attempted initiative.   I realize that the training audience needs to include first-year job holders, but it still comes across at if this is a radically new idea never before attempted.

Given that I’m old enough to be mistaken for being retired, I can say with some confidence that the imperative to promote diversity has been around for some time.   It is one of the topics I have vivid recollections on my entry into the workplace some time ago.   I was very motivated to participate in this revolutionary concept.    But now thinking back, I may have just been misled into thinking my generation was the first to give it a try.   I’m pretty sure it wasn’t as revolutionary as I had been led to believe.

Perhaps what hasn’t changed is the strategy of convincing the youngest that they have a new opportunity to do something never before achieved.    That is fine.   But if this training strategy has been so successful for all these years then why haven’t we achieved the goal of diversity?   Alternatively, if we haven’t achieved the goal after trying so long then maybe we should try changing our training tactics.

Modern training exploit multimedia with animation, videos, and voicing.   The non-content messaging is all about visual or audible clues.   We hear different voices, different accents in voices, variety of feminine and masculine voices.   We see different shapes, sizes, colors, handicaps.   Diversity is something that can be measured with microphones and cameras.

The training content on the other hand is about cultures, perspectives, educations, and life experiences.    Together the message is that if we are sounded by visual and audible evidence of diversity then we’ll enjoy the benefits of diversity.   Conversely, we’ll never benefit from diversity unless we achieve the appearance of diversity.

I’m still trying to understand what is the project of diversity.  What exactly are we trying to achieve.

I originally received the concept as one of open-mindedness.   In earlier posts, I talked about what I described as acknowledging intelligence.   The project says that entering a dialog grants that we acknowledge each others intelligence and we acknowledge each others good will.    The earlier posts specifically addressed dialog involving strong disagreements.

To me, diversity is about disagreements.   Any available benefit from other cultures, life experiences, physical differences, etc, comes inherently from the fact that they present ideas that conflict with my own.   There is no benefit if there is no differences in opinions on at least some topic of consequence.

That last point is subtle.   What is consequential?   Take for example a technology job that has a goal of optimizing some system.   There is not much consequence to be gained by exploring individual diversity in preferences over football or soccer, preferences over different foods or cooking techniques, preferences for quality of wines or beers, or preferences of vacation locations.

Accepting such differences benefits the building of stronger teams, but that is more of an issue of building social skills rather than diversity.   I can see there may be some prejudices that can interfere with that team building.

One objective for diversity is to foster getting along with each other for the sake of being stronger teams.    Now that I stated it that way, I can see it is a workable definition.   It may in fact be the primary definition.    Let’s remove any barriers to making friendships within the team.   Good.

Maybe I was wrong, but that’s not the definition I had in mind.   Indeed maybe I completely missed the point entirely and flunked out of the entire process.    I place high value on the idea of a strong team.   I place a high value on making friends.    I have never equated friendships with team membership.   In fact, I find the concepts fundamentally incompatible.

To me, the worst thing we should be trying to foster is that friendship bonds are essential for team membership.  It is not breaking down barriers but instead building new barriers.   It is like replacing one time of tribalism with another.

The purposes of teams is to compete with other teams.  This competition implies some exclusion.  We certainly don’t encourage our team members to work for the opposing team.    To equate team membership with friendship is to impose a requirement of exclusivity of friendships.   If friendships are a defining quality of a team, then the team members should not extend friendship toward the opposing teams.

This exclusivity is often expressed explicitly in the form of disqualification based on conflict of interest.   Some companies have to build elaborate barriers to assure there is not even casual relationships between different parts of the company that engage in different types of business.   Conflict of interest is so poisonous that we must avoid its appearance.    What started as a forbidding of familial or financial relationships has evolved to the forbidding of any kind of relationships between teams in order that they be seen as completely independent.   Real world consequence is the need to terminate conversation once learning a person’s affiliation: “Oh, I probably shouldn’t be talking with you”.   That’s reality, today.

Equating team building to friend building is to build new kinds of prejudice.   The project of diversity becomes replacing one form of prejudice with another.   The project of diversity can be described as drop the discrimination of your parents and adopt our prejudices instead.

In an earlier post I fantasized about an older era of an urban office environment characterized by a 35 hour work week of 9-5 work days with an hour off for lunch.   That fantasy included the idea that although the office hours were limited, important stuff happened during the long lunch and the social gathering made possible by everyone getting off at the same time.   People met with friends during lunch or after hours.   Those friends introduced each other to more friends.    Today such networks of friends would be a conflict-of-interest nightmares with emphasis on the plural.   In that post, I described how we’ve dismantled that opportunity by introducing flexible and staggered work schedules, longer work hours, etc.   Now I see that we further discourage such opportunities with our diversity objectives that build strong but exclusive teams.

My personal observation is that after work gatherings at bars (happy hours) have been transformed into a extension of office team building of stronger relationships within the team.   In such gatherings there is a sense of exclusivity to pay most of ones attention on building a stronger friendship with the team members.   The team chooses a gathering location that is least likely to encounter by accident the teams from competitors, clients, or fire-walled departments.    This looks like discrimination based on team memberships.   Do we really want to replace one form of pernicious discrimination with another equally pernicious form?

It appears we do.   We’ve certainly adopted that in our politics.   Big tent political parties that demand exclusive devotion of its members.

I think we got off track of the original intention of the diversity project.   Certainly, I had a different view of what it meant to seek diversity.

My view of seeking diversity is to be open minded about other points of view that may be as much informed by different life experiences as by different experiences.   The goal is not to build friendships.  The goal is to exchange ideas.   The goal is to engage in argument but one that grants both sides are equally intelligent and have equal intentions of good will.    They just disagree.   The arguments need to be engaged as between two equals.    Such arguments do not need to be burdened by an imperative of preserving an invitation to the next dinner party.

I assumed this is the benefit we wanted from diversity.   To become better informed in order to make stronger decisions.   Mature arguments end up with both sides learning something no matter what side if any wins the specific argument.    The diversity project should strive to broaden the opportunities to enter into such mature arguments.

Instead, the diversity project heads in the opposite direction.   We strive for the diverse team photo, all of smiling faces, ideally at some off-site social gathering so the everyone has some form of refreshment in their hands.   In the office, we have the diversity and everyone is all about not arguing about anything.   Go along in order to get along.   A diverse workforce has a happy workforce that presents diverse photo opportunities.

A diverse workforce is one that learns to keep their disagreements to themselves.

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