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 / Spring 2004 / Issue 34(originally published by Booz & Company)


Diversity and Its Discontents

Contrary to expectations, however, the researchers found (in part by reviewing other researchers’ findings) that diverse workplaces tend to have more conflict and turnover than homogeneous ones. Their own research also determined that managers and employees don’t necessarily do better at serving or selling to their ethnic peers — Latino salespeople don’t necessarily do better at reaching Latino customers, for instance.

All of these studies took years to pull together. At those few companies willing to invite researchers in, the data was obscure and difficult to cross-correlate. For instance, breakdowns of employees by race and gender rarely matched the contributions of various groups to revenues and profits. Yet in the end, although the studies differed in particulars, a common theme ran through all of them. Terrific, high-performing, diverse teams all seemed to consist of people with the same root quality: The capacity, whether preexisting or deliberately developed, for treating oneself, and the people around one, as worthy of respect regardless of background or role.

Thus, for example, Catalyst in 1998 and 2003 found that 40 percent of the men surveyed said that they disliked reporting to a woman boss. “Some men think that women really aren’t listened to in their organizations,” said Sheila Wellington, who until recently was the president of Catalyst, and is now a faculty member at New York University’s Stern School of Business. “So they ask themselves: ‘Will I pay a price for having a woman boss? Does she have the clout to advance my career?’ Or, ‘I have a wife at home. Must I have one at work, too?’”

Only when men can transcend this attitude do women tend to feel at home as bosses. In Ms. Wellington’s view, one of the most hopeful factors is that many CEOs have working daughters today. Those CEOs now have a visceral reason to respect (and bestow legitimacy upon) the experience of women making their way in the hierarchy.

Similarly, in the BOLD study, there is this intriguing finding: Teams seeking to achieve fairness or balance as an end in itself frequently flounder. Teams that consciously aim for “integration and learning,” in which the work group members are genuinely interested in their teammates’ insights, skills, and experiences, tend to flourish. Most companies’ senior management would probably argue that they do promote integration and learning, but in practice, they put their Chinese-American marketing manager in charge of Asian customers only, and then ignore what he says to the rest of the team. Or they subtly look down on the woman who leaves at 3 p.m. every day to pick her kids up from school. No matter how open and enthusiastic they were when they came in, people who feel “outranked” often leave the company eventually.

Predators Lose
The problem with the rankism concept, of course, is its expansiveness — just about anything, from excessive CEO salaries to revealing waitress uniforms, can be condemned as “rankist.” Sooner or later, the tendency to find rankism everywhere one looks for it can lead to absurdity.

But there is also a danger in ignoring the idea, because it offers not just a label, but a remedy, which we might call workplace dignitarianism. To Fred Miller of Kaleel Jamison, for example, the only companies that successfully maintain a diverse and inclusive work force over time are those that make all their employees feel they belong and are taken seriously. “I don’t feel included when people pick up a newspaper, roll their eyes, or turn away when I speak. I feel included when I’m in an environment where I can do my best work.”

The most effective teams seem to be those that have instilled a culture where terrorizing, predatory behaviors are minimal; where people find it easy to learn what others are thinking and to care about understanding them. And that raises a question that will truly be difficult for many of us — much more difficult than confronting mere racism or sexism. What if, to solve the problem of diversity, we had to eschew the predatory part of ourselves? And what if corporations had to instill an ethic whereby predators, even subtle ones, don’t automatically win?

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