Nothing Personal

In my previous post on diversity in the workplace, I described a difference of expectations for diversity.   My view of diversity is to foster exchange of ideas that are relevant to advancing the mission of the team.

The contrary view is that diversity encourages people to replace old forms of identity with an new form of identity defined by the new team.    The latter view is of building a tribe based on the accident of who happens to belong to the team.   The diversity project encourages close bonding between individuals.   It makes everything personal.

The alternative view is to make nothing personal.   This view of diversity is that the personal becomes invisible.    At one time, the discussion of diversity emphasized the metaphor of blindness.    The idea is that when it comes to doing a task, we should interact as we can not see or hear any differences between us.   The only thing we are aware of is the capabilities each person brings to the table.

Imagine a meeting where everyone shows up in a room.   The meeting includes some people who have never before met.   Pay attention to each person.   Each presents a unique person of both immutable and self-selected appearances.   We can see different nationalities, different heights, different sexes, etc.   We also can hear different accents and voice pitches.   But we also see people who make individual choices into how much work they put into their physical appearance in terms of dress, grooming, or body shape.   Where people have a choice of how they appear, they want others to notice that effort.   A face to face meeting provides an opportunity for people to make statements through their appearance.

Now, imagine a voice-only conference call.   Now we are blind to any visual information about people.    Again, some on the call may have never met each other.   We still have the voice clues.    Voice pitch, accent, and grammar can still give a lot of clues about the person’s immutable identity.     But there remains an element of deliberate choices to stand out verbally.    Some may come prepared with some jokes or familiarity with popular current events: the intention is to make a good impression.   Others may have longer preparation in improving their speaking skills and voice control: again the intention is to make a good impression.   We want people to see us through our voices.

Now, imagine a text-only instant-message session.   There are no visual or audible clues.   There is only text.    Again, we still have clues about who people are.  There are different styles of writing that can give away some person’s immutable traits.   Also, some may have made more effort to make a good appearance such as coming prepared with some fresh small-talk topics.    Some may have long practiced typing and writing skills so that they can be very proficient at making clear statements that easy to understand or hard to misunderstand.    There remains some opportunities to be seen as distinctive, but the options are much more limited.

Finally imagine submitting articles to a peer review journal where newer articles makes some response to older articles.   The peer review and editorial process irons out the individualistic wrinkles.   At the extreme of editorial and peer review rigor, the only opportunity a person has to express his individuality is in his name.   He is still allowed to embellish his name with titles, certifications, or affiliations.    He can also publish more frequently and broadly to make his name more familiar to the audience.   But that is all.    The focus is purely on the argument, not who is making the argument.

When I think about the ideal of diversity, I think about the analogy of the published peer-reviewed academic paper.   There is nothing personal about it.   There is no hidden agenda about making friends, building relationships, or establishing some social hierarchy.

This is not well described as being blind.   Being blind is a handicap getting in the way of the intention to get to know people, to make friends, to establish a place in the social network.   Blindness is irrelevant in the absence of that social intention.

My view of diversity in the work place is to completely cut it off from any social implications.  It is not about making friends or expanding social networks.

Today, social networks and our work-identity are richly intertwined.   An imperative to advancing a career is to “network”: to get out and socialize among just the right people who can give you access to new opportunities or who can introduce you to someone else who could.    On the other hand, when we socialize we use our job titles or responsibilities as way to express our individuality.  Our jobs become part of how we present ourselves socially, complementing how well we take care of our bodies, how fashionably we dress, or how well we can carry a conversation.

As I mentioned in the last post, the popular view of diversity can be measured by the visual clues in a group photo.   The goal is a diverse group who appear to be perfectly comfortable being together and ideally having fun.

My view different in that such a group photo would be impossible.   In my my view of diversity, we wouldn’t be able to recognize each other in any way except for the ideas and capabilities we offer.

This view is closely related to the idea of acknowledging intelligence that I discussed in several older posts in different contexts.    I describe acknowledging intelligence as a willingness to engage in dialog with full respect of the other’s equal intelligence and equal intentions of good will.   It is a dialog, however.   We will disagree on the content.   A dialog focuses on the content of the ideas and not on the personalities presenting the idea.  The benefit of diversity is that it introduces new disagreements to discuss and to adapt around.   The disagreements may be very strong and perhaps never fully resolved, but can still benefit by finding workable compromise that may be more beneficial to the team than either argument.

I’d also tie in my thoughts about distinguishing the sciences between present-tense science and past-tense science.    The past-tense or historical science is in the business of building hypothesis that explain the available (and often deficient) historical record.   The past-tense scientist pursues arguments based on the available evidence.   In addition, the past-tense science is a patient science so that even if there is a personality-component to an argument, the argument will still be around when the personalities are replaced.

On the other hand, the present-tense science is focused on collecting new observations with careful documentation and control so that the the observations are as unambiguous as possible.   The present-tense sciences filters out personality-influences by requiring repeatability and reproducibility.

When I think of diversity, I think in terms of the ideals of science.   The distinctive identifying attributes of the person of scientist are invisible to the project.

It is human nature to want to build relationships.   It is also human nature to build those relationships with people we need to spend a lot of time in close proximity.   I understand the idea that there can be some problems if a team fragments into exclusive subcultures that then fall into some kind of social hierarchy.    The popular ideal of diversity is to dismantle this or prevent it from occurring.

I see diversity as making work as impersonal as possible, to separate work from relationships.

Freedom of association has value and that freedom should not be bounded by proximity or teams.   We should be free to associate based on personalities instead of by team memberships, we should be able to have friends that cross team boundaries, and we should be able to keep our associations private from our team.

My view of diversity complements this ideal of freedom of association because the diversity project has only the obligation we all treat each other as equals in intelligence and in good will.   We don’t have to be friends or socialize together.


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