Dr. Martin N. Davidson, Associate Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior at the Darden Graduate School of Business, University of Virginia, has a controversial theory about diversity: basically, that is has failed.
It´s not that Davidson, doesn´t believe in diversity. He just thinks most companies have taken the wrong approach. In his new book, The End of Diversity as We Know It: Why Diversity Efforts Fail and How Leveraging Difference Can Succeed, he explains how to make diversity work for corporate America.
TNJ: Do people misunderstand the concept of diversity in the workplace?
Martin N. Davidson: It’s not that people have misunderstood diversity. Rather, there is a diverse set of perspectives on what it means. In particular, some people really think of diversity as an end in itself. They believe companies should promote diversity and inclusion because it is the right thing to do. Others don’t buy this thinking. They believe diversity is really only valuable because it helps a company perform. For these folks, diversity only works if it is a means to an end.
TNJ: Do you think workplace diversity has failed?
MD: I don’t think “diversity” has failed. Bringing together people with diverse backgrounds, perspectives and identities has been happening as long as people have been working together. The problem is that traditional approaches to building more diverse, high-performing organizations aren’t sufficient to getting the job done anymore. The key reasons why these traditional methods don’t work well anymore are:
1) They don’t focus enough on the mission and strategy for the business. The most important question to answer when it comes to making diversity work should not be: “How many people of color or women do we have?” Instead, it should be: “What differences will help us achieve our larger goals, mission and purpose?”
2) They put too much of the onus for creating a more diverse organization on HR and diversity professionals. Everyone (especially every leader) in the organization has to have a stake in fostering diversity or it won’t happen. That means that teams of leaders have to be intrinsically motivated to make it work.
3) Traditional diversity approaches are too “U.S-centric.” Emphasis on diversity of race and ethnicity as it is defined in the U.S. does not translate well in the global marketplace.
TNJ: What is Leveraging Difference?
MD: Leveraging Difference is an approach in which organizations and leaders ask the question: What differences do we need to foster in order to achieve our goals, mission, and vision? It focuses on identifying and incorporating differences as a way of getting work done more innovatively and more effectively. In short, Leveraging Difference is the process of capitalizing consistently on relevant differences to achieve an organization’s mission and goals.
TNJ: What steps can companies take to Leveraging Difference?
MD: Companies Leverage Difference by following a cycle of activity that includes these steps:
1) See Difference—the actions of identifying the differences that are strategically important for an organization. This happens when leaders and key stakeholders sit down and analyze the business. The question they must answer is: what differences do we need to nurture to make our company perform at the highest level?
2) Understand Difference—the actions of gathering and integrating accurate knowledge about relevant differences identified in step 1. In essence, this is the place where leaders and organizations learn about the differences they believe to be critical in making the company perform at the highest level.
3) Engage Difference—start creating new ways of doing work. At this stage, companies begin to experiment with ways to use difference to create results. For example, this is where a department might begin a new sales approach to reach a new customer base.
4) Leveraging Difference—companies achieve this fourth and final step when it becomes standard practice to cycle through steps 1-3. A “Leveraging Difference company” is one that is adept at looking for ways to use difference to create results. They don’t need diversity programs or offices of diversity. Instead, they look for, learn about, and experiment with differences all the time.