Learn to Embrace the Tension of Diversity

As leaders, the rich diversity of culture and thought around the world is one of our greatest resources — if we use it as such. Differences of ideas, methods, motivations, and competencies can be used to build great organizations. However, this wonderful resource can be a double-edge sword as cross-cultural exchanges present unlimited possibilities for misunderstandings and cultural blunders.

As companies grow and expand around the world, diversity in the workplace increases. Successful organizations identify, recruit, and train professionals from a diverse blend of backgrounds, cultures, styles, and motivations into positions of increasing power and responsibility.

In the midst of individual contributors with such diverse backgrounds, success calls for leaders who are comfortable with diversity tension. Diversity tension is the stress and strain that accompanies mixtures of differences and similarities. The task of leaders working in the global business arena is not to minimize this tension, but rather to use it as a creative force for change, and, of course, to make quality decisions in the midst of identity differences, similarities, and pressures.

Leaders who prepare and empower their employees to understand others without judging, to be requirement-driven, and to be comfortable with diversity tension are more productive and successful. It just isn't enough for leaders to possess these capabilities themselves; they must also develop them throughout the organization.

What are some good first steps to developing positive diversity tension in the workplace? Well, one is to not make any assumptions about the cultural base or outlook with whom you work or do business. Another is to understand the dynamics of diversity (through historical, political, and economic references), how it affects the workplace, worldviews, life and communication styles, ethics, and etiquette of co-workers.

Developing positive diversity tension takes an understanding of both the big things and the small things that form unique cultures, including leadership and work styles (for instance formal vs. informal); decision-making styles (e.g. intuitive vs. analytical); information-sharing methods (do people prefer written, oral, face-to-face, text, email, video conference, etc.); and motivations (these could be power, achievement, affiliation, money, etc.). It's not necessary to hold everyone's views on these matters, but it is important to accept that there are many different methods, positions, and styles by which people can accomplish goals and directives.

Utilizing diversity tension in the workforce requires that leaders understand that differences in race, culture, and background are advantages — not deficits — for effective teamwork and problem solving.

To take embrace diversity tension, leaders need to:

  • Create an inclusive work environment where people feel welcomed and valued for sharing their opinions and skills
  • Recognize and reward successes that result from valuing diversity
  • Assess the different learning styles and strengths in people
  • Involve people from a variety of backgrounds in decision-making and problem-solving processes
  • Utilize the full potential of all employees and build on complementary skills, backgrounds, and cultural knowledge
  • Refuse to accept behaviors that attack the self-respect of others and confront people who stereotype others or display prejudiced behavior
  • Participate in diversity training
  • Involve a wide variety of people in their personal and professional lives, and take the time to get to know them

Using tension of diversity as a positive, rather than viewing differences as negative, a well-rounded diverse team will be able to produce valuable brainstorming sessions, imaginative problem-solving and decision making, unique perspectives on strategic planning, and inventive product development ideas. The benefits of such a diverse workforce will be felt throughout the organization and are key to competing successfully in the global marketplace.

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