I recently had the privilege of hearing a nationally known diversity advocate share his story of being victimized growing up, committing a crime and being incarcerated, and struggling to break free from the tyranny of labels after his release. Othering, he called it, is the process of labeling a person as “different” so it’s easier to see them as less than human and justify prejudice and discrimination.
There are many good souls out there trying to find healthy ways through diversity, all of whom have experienced the power of labels and othering. I’ve seen four different approaches to diversity, each with its own motive and predictable outcomes. Only one of these can transcend the problem, as the rest inadvertently reinforce the very problem we are trying to eliminate.
The rationale is if we learn about diversity, we will appreciate it more. As the saying goes, humans fear what the don’t understand, and kill what they don’t know. The hope is that the more we learn about people different from us, the more tolerant we will be. While there’s noble intent here, awareness is only a start and doesn’t get to the root of the problem.
Tolerating diversity is about putting up with it. I don’t have to like it, but at least I don’t hurt them. Even the word tolerate implies that something is aversive and potentially harmful, but you tough it out. Tolerance reinforces that you can build up immunity or resistance if you expose yourself. So, if you are really good at it, you become the noble one for putting up with all this pesky diversity.
Hey, let’s have an ethnic luncheon. You bring chips and salsa, and I’ll bring gyros and we will play ethnic music from our respective traditions. We could really take it over the top by dressing in our ethnic clothing as well. Celebrating is better than tolerating, but it still reinforces that differences need propping up, that somehow we need to emphasize and affirm them, as if they need our attention and permission to be OK.
None of these approaches get at the real issue. Diversity is integral to the design of the universe. It’s not a glitch, it’s a feature. Diversity exists because we need it. Diversity has purpose and function way beyond having a bunch of fun restaurants to explore on the weekends.
Leveraging diversity means utilizing specific skills, perspectives, and features in order to be more effective. A lever is any tool that utilizes a fulcrum to increase force. What if we looked at diversity this way? We may ask questions like;
- How might we utilize your unique experience being blind to help us reach a new demographic?
- What does your Muslim faith offer that could unlock keys to better customer service?
- You have a very playful and outgoing personality that represents 30% of the population. How could you help us develop a more comprehensive ad campaign for our new product?
Leveraging diversity transcends othering by accepting that humans are all OK, that differences are an asset, built into the universe, and meant to be used to create something great. They are a resource, not a liability.
As leaders, our job is to start with the assumption that all humans are OK, and leverage resources for the greatest good. Diversity is a resource. Awareness, tolerance and celebration are all important, but leveraging is the ultimate goal.
What are you doing to leverage the diversity within you and around you?
Nate Regier is the co-founding owner and CEO of Next Element, a global advisory firm specializing in building cultures of compassionate accountability. A former practicing psychologist, Regier is now a certified Leading Out of Drama and Process Communication Model certifying master trainer. He has published two books: "Beyond Drama" and his latest work, "Conflict Without Casualties"
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