The ongoing quest for an optimal level of organizational diversity is ongoing and difficult. Although there are obviously differences between countries, societies, and organizations, it can be stated as a fact that, as a global community, we have yet to reach the stage where people diversity has been fully embraced. My personal (perhaps biased) opinion is that, as societies, organizations, and individuals, we are so much less than what we could be due to, amongst other things, non-optimal levels of people diversity and inclusion. 

For decades, working with the concept of people diversity, I have encountered most of the key concepts such as diversity charters, equity plans, people empowerment, historically disadvantaged groups, most under-represented groups, and so on. In reflecting on potential barriers to optimal diversity and inclusion, the following come to mind (not in order of any priority): 

  • Having the wrong organizational conversations about diversity
  • Too narrow definitions of diversity 
  • Tokenism 
  • Overt and covert sabotage of diversity initiatives 
  • Stigmatization of people as diversity appointees and diversity promotions
  • A business-as-usual approach with diversity as a side issue
  • Lack of clear diversity policies, goals, strategies, and actions 
  • Lack of measurement and evaluation against clear diversity goals and objectives
  • Lack of consequences when managers do not meet agreed to diversity goals and objectives. 

The abovementioned should not be viewed as an exhaustive list of all potential barriers to diversity and inclusion, but they are “top of mind” when I reflect on this key topic. 

Let us unpack these potential barriers.

The wrong diversity conversation. I often hear boards and executive-level leaders say, “We are all for diversity as long as it does not negatively impact our organizational performance.” To my mind, that is a totally inappropriate and wrong starting point to have a meaningful discussion about diversity. Instead, the diversity conversation should be based on a wide acceptance of the fact that diversity is a prerequisite for sustained organizational success. Once this becomes the core focus of the conversation, it works wonders for aligned actions to achieve and sustain an optimal level of organizational diversity. Therefore, do not shy away from robust discussions about diversity! 

Too narrow a definition of diversity. Diversity has to be viewed as a composite concept, supported by a dialectic (“and-and”) approach. My personal preference is for a definition of diversity as “diversity of thought and worldviews.” This core definition requires multi-dimensional dialectics in terms of, amongst other things, gender, race, age, geographical diversity, educational background… “and-and.” This operational definition is, to my mind, indicative of the fact that it is diversity’s dialectic richness that is vital to sustainable organizational success.

Tokenism and window dressing. It is unfortunately my impression that there are various organizations that play a numbers game, showcasing their people diversity to the world. Such organizations do not however also show the world that the majority of their appointees/promotions from previously/ historically disadvantaged groups are stuck on the lower organizational levels, encountering the so-called organizational glass ceiling and finding it extremely difficult to make the leap to the levels where they can be empowered with true entrepreneurial decision-making power. Often, they are endowed with important-sounding job titles but without being granted the accompanying level of authority. 

Not allowing employees to vocalize and discuss their personal fears. In many organizations, white males are still the dominant group, and the fear of a significant number of them is something along the lines of: “Why should I support organizational diversity? This could lead to me losing my job or getting stuck without any further promotions.”[1] By means of an example, without mentioning the company (it is a large, listed company), I think back to a visit by a very prominent CEO who used me as a sounding board for his diversity plans. A key to the CEO’s plan was visits to all the geographically dispersed company sites and publicly asking all supervisors - middle as well as senior-level managers - to show their support for the company’s diversity plan by a show of hands, and symbolically adding their names and signatures to the company’s Diversity Charter. I told the CEO that it would not work, and he got very upset with me and left before I could motivate my viewpoint. He came back about 6 weeks later, admitting that his plan had failed and that he encountered severe overt and covert resistance as well as sabotage of the diversity plan. I then explained the importance of allowing people to vocalize their fears and the importance of him as CEO to address those fears in an open and transparent manner. We then, over a period of 3 months, introduced a number of “courageous conversations” to the company. This was met with significant success and is a major contributor to the successful implementation of diversity plans. The key point: do not shy away from difficult and courageous discussions.

Stigmatization of diversity appointees/promotions. In the context of diversity, this occurs when people from previously disadvantaged and under-represented groups are employed and promoted by organizations in such a manner that the subtext is one of “it is not really based on merit; it is because we have to meet organizational diversity targets.” Such an approach erodes the self-worth and dignity of such appointees and promotions, impeding their optimal performance in organizations (sometimes it becomes a negative self-fulfilling prophecy: “What did I tell you? They were a diversity appointee and, as could have been expected, they failed.”) As leaders, we should beware of setting people up for failure. In my opinion, it should be about two interrelated concepts: merit and diversity. This is the manner in which it should be implemented and communicated. If leaders fail to do this, they are doing people from previously disadvantaged or under-represented groups a terrible injustice. 

“We continue with our business as usual and promote diversity as a side issue.” This is doomed to fail. True diversity necessitates it to be integrated as an important and non-negotiable dimension of the organization’s very being. It must find traction in all organizational levels and dimensions. This, to my mind, is the only way optimal levels of systemic diversity will be achieved. 

Lack of traction. The world is full of organizations with very impressive diversity statements, visions, and charters – which is a good thing. However, on its own, it is not enough to ensure a sustained drive to achieve optimal organizational diversity. For this to happen, the aforementioned set of diversity instruments have to be translated into aligned and interrelated diversity policies, goals, strategies, objectives, action plans as well as appropriate diversity performance management. The aforementioned “full” set of diversity instruments equips leaders with the means to ensure active and sustained implementation of integrated diversity plans, but (and it is a big but!) leaders must have the guts to insist on organization-wide performance on agreed to diversity goals and objectives. This is extremely important. There are so many examples where excellent diversity plans (excellent on paper, at least) failed dismally as a result of key leaders without the necessary courage and perseverance to insist on performance in terms of agreed to diversity goals and objectives. 

In summary

None of the aforementioned barriers to diversity are insurmountable. They do, however, to my mind, present very real and serious challenges and should therefore be identified and eradicated. This requires leaders with courage and empathy. Leaders who make it their priority to align the mission, performance levels, and the people dimension (including culture) in order to strive for, amongst other goals, an integrated, optimal, and sustainable level of organizational diversity. Finally, maybe it requires leaders who have an iron fist (unwavering insistence on performance in terms of integrated diversity goals and objectives) in a velvet glove (empathy for all people and true servant leaders). 

After all is said and done, perhaps this is indeed the key to optimal organizational people diversity?

This article originally appeared in ISM's 2020 Summer Newsletter.

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