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Mar 14 2018 |
Diversity at workplace - Are we thinking it the right way
By: Sushobhit

The problem with today's organizations is that they try to replicate any idea that has been successful in some other organizations without evaluating the idea's relevance in their own context. Take for example the case of open space culture. Past couple of decades have seen a huge rise and success of startups which were often small teams working out of a single room. Because of their success, a lot of organizations like investment banks, software firms, accounting agencies etc. imitated the idea without analyzing the compatibility between the idea of open space and the type of work they do. The results were completely opposite to what they had expected (https://goo.gl/PtD9Kj).

The idea of diversity in an organization has followed a similar fate. Let us try to look this in some depth. Human beings have a psychological tendency to form groups. The saying, 'birds of similar feathers flock together' underlines the idea of nations, states, religions, tribes, and cultures. What is the first thing we do when we meet someone new with whom we will be working or living? We subtly try to find commonalities. Let me share with you an example of diversity exercise done at my college. The institute took a lot of steps in promoting the idea of diversity in its selection process, and it is true that it worked well to an extent when I used to find diverse set of people around me, but what I observed after a couple of months was something which led me to rethink diversity in an organization. People had formed friendships and groups based on common states and regions. They preferred doing group projects with the people who look like them, think like them and speak in their language, probably because of the connect and trust level which we humans tend to develop when we meet someone like us. This is something which is wired in us by nature. We tend to polarize with people who are similar to us. We like forming clans and groups with them.

So, is diversity really helpful in an organization? While proponents of diversity claim that it boosts productivity, creativity and new ideas, I believe organizations need to evaluate whether diversity is in line with the nature of work they do. It can be argued that diversity at workplaces can lead to problems also. Different types of people have different thoughts, ideas, belief systems, norms, backgrounds, customs, values, and traditions. The obvious dimensions of gender, race, ethnicity, and disability are just a few pennies in a pocketful of change, which generally are the basis of anti-discrimination laws around the world. The deeper aspects associated with these dimensions start appearing only after the passage of time. When a diverse set of employees are put together in a group to work for a project, goal or a cause, these differences which arise because of diversity can hinder collaboration and mutual efforts. There can be many other things which can hamper interpersonal relationships e.g. employees working in an MNC may argue over some recent border conflict news, over reasons which can be either trivial or quite serious for others. These kinds of things result in loss of productivity and kindle negative emotions in the organization.

Consider this situation- you have the option to lead one of the two teams for an important project on developing some AI solution for a big client. One team consists of an African-American female, an Asian male, an American Christian and a Britisher. The other team consists of someone with excellent experience in data sciences, a statistician, a machine learning expert, an ingenious coder and an excellent orator & a presenter. Most of you will argue that the two choices are totally uncorrelated, and cannot be compared as such, which is precisely my point. The first set of choices probably won’t even matter to you if the team is equipped with traits from the second set of choices. Proponents of diversity often fail to explain what exactly is diversity at workplace-is it cultural diversity or gender diversity or religious diversity or ethnic diversity or regional diversity or diversity based on color or minority diversity or is it diversity based on ideas, schools of thought, experiences and philosophies? To what extent we need to go to implement diversity, what is the limit?

The original idea of diversity was to create a pulling force in the organizations that would automatically break the barriers for people who stand less or no chance in getting a particular job because of their background or some other socio-economic factors attached to them but are otherwise fully capable and deserving of that job. But it seems that organizations have misinterpreted this concept of diversity. Instead of creating that pull, organizations tend to push diversity down its throat by recruiting different kinds of people according to pre-decided numbers.

I believe that the issue of diversity has been misunderstood. By being inclusive of diversity, we should mean that there must be no discrimination on the basis of race, religion, school of thought, ideas, nationality, gender, age etc. By no means, it should imply that these things get pushed just for the sake of diversity. The diversity inclusion in the organization should not be done for the sake of diversity or as a PR exercise to display fancy percentages. The objective should be that the organizations should be unbiased, equal and judicious towards every individual irrespective of the strings attached to him/her. Then only the diversity can be achieved in a true sense.