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Still questioning diversity? Maybe you’re asking the wrong question

Diversity is more than a category, writes Larry Robertson, which is why leaders need to question their biases.

5 min read



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Questions are enormously powerful tools, but with a twist. Without a doubt, inquiry can power us forward to greater awareness, innovativeness, and advancement. Yet, questions can also hold us back. Careless questions, or those asked by rote, can blind us and keep us from tapping powerful things — including diversity.

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The power of questions

It’s funny how often we question purely out of habit and therefore inadvertently fail to consider what the question might accomplish, or perhaps preclude. Take a question I’m asked surprisingly often, “So, what are you?” It’s akin to “What do you do?” but more revealing. The question gets asked when someone learns of my multiple professional roles as strategy advisor, author, founder, columnist, coach, etc. Hence: What are you? and also, Which are you? More habitual than deliberate, the question seeks to pinpoint. It suggests that being more than one thing, or lacking a proper hierarchy for one’s roles, somehow breaks the rules. What rules, exactly? The rules we sometimes choose, but just as often simply fall into line behind when we don’t think about a question and its power. Rather than choose a powerful question, we seek an efficient answer — to make things familiar, to not have to think. You may not like how it sounds, but the truth is we actually use such rules to limit diversity. 

Diversity. Once a word that flitted on the edges of work conversations, diversity now takes center stage in nearly every discussion about strategy, brand, competitiveness, wellbeing or leadership in today’s workplace. Too often, however, it remains just a word, and as such, an underutilized key to success. Part of the challenge faced in embracing diversity is that we are trained to lean away from it, not diversity so much as disruption, difference, feared conflict and change. Our typical choice of questions reflects this — we most often ask seeking confirmation and brevity, not range or change. 

Overcoming our shared fear of diversity

It’s critical to note that this dynamic usually isn’t about the people involved, but instead about our shared fear of not being able to pin down answers and build reliable processes around those answers. By way of that fear, we inadvertently curb the very thing that could help us advance, professionally, personally and as humans: diversity. The what-are-you question I get is a mild version of greater limits we place on diversity. More pronounced and more harmful types arise when, for example, we learn that a colleague is more than we thought and also different from ourselves or our expectations. Perhaps we learn they grew up in a different socioeconomic area, come from a unique cultural upbringing or pursued a distinct track of study from what we did. The seemingly harmless what-are-you question is like asking that colleague which of the parts of who they are matters most — in how they think, what they value or what they dream. 

Diversity is powerful, something repeatedly proven. Yet, it’s powerful in ways far beyond the obvious. “Diverse teams are smarter,” concluded a Harvard Business Review meta study of research on diversity’s deeper impacts. “(Diverse teams) are more likely to constantly reexamine the facts and remain objective … they keep their collective cognitive resources sharp and vigilant, becoming more aware of their own entrenched ways of thinking that could otherwise blind them.” The greater the diversity across organizations, HBR concluded, especially at senior levels, the more those organizations tended to have financial results above the mean of their industries. Cognitive diversity is what they are emphasizing. This is the diversity that not only arises from the range of experiences, backgrounds and thinking across a diverse group, but our own cognitive diversity by being exposed to that range. Inquiry is critical to tapping the power of cognitive diversity, but only works when it’s conscious and active.

The power of range and productivity

All of this is helpful context. But what we want most is an insight that allows us to pursue actual change. I’ll give you two. Those who successfully leverage the inherent power of diversity prioritize two things: range and proactivity. 

Range is the simple recognition in one’s daily life that diversity isn’t simply a category. It is a lens, one with range that can be applied to anything from a person’s professional roles, to their background, experiences and heritage or in asking and answering more powerful and conscious questions — like instead asking that colleague of yours: “How do all of those things about you combine to make you who you are?” “How are you more effective because of that range?” Or, “What do I not yet know about you that makes you, you?” Proactivity is the choice and commitment to replace the default and pigeonholing questions that shape many of our day-to-day routines, with more such diverse questions, ongoing and habitually. Success is when range and proactivity are seen as perpetual pursuits, and become a mindset.

Range and proactivity are the deceivingly simple distinctions of the leaders and teams experiencing diversity not as a concept, an aspiration or limitation, but as a key success factor, both in their work, and in what it means to be human. And range and productivity find purchase easiest and most often when inquiry is employed to explore them. Any questions?


Larry Robertson, named a Fulbright scholar in 2021, is the founder of Lighthouse Consulting and works, writes and guides at the nexus of creativity, leadership and entrepreneurship. He’s the author “The Language of Man: Learning to Speak Creativity,” “A Deliberate Pause: Entrepreneurship and Its Moment in Human Progress” and the new “Rebel Leadership: How To Thrive in Uncertain Times.”

Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.


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