Are Diversity Programs Healthy? I Found A Better Way to Connect

I led a breakout session at a European coaching conference in Belgium in 2006 called, “Emotional Intelligence and Cultural Diversity.” After explaining how the brain quickly assesses and reacts to people, I broke the audience into groups to discover what stereotypes people typically hold about countries and cultures that weren’t really true.

I made a deadly cultural error.

I tried to lump together countries by regions so there weren’t any people left out of a group in the room. There were a lot of people from the United States and western European countries. I tried to even out the groups by assembling people into regional areas, or at least countries somewhat close to each other.

The Canadian refused to be clumped with the Americans and acted insulted when I suggested he join those from the U.K. The Ukrainian did not want to be with the Russians not even for a ten minute exercise. Those from Latin American countries said they would rather work by themselves, even in groups of one.

When we focus on our differences, we cannot come together.

In the end, people from countries close to each other named similar negative stereotypes that others held about them. Had they put aside their emotional reactions to being seen as one, they would have found this out.

Even when we focus on strengths by culture, gender or age, we are promoting stereotypes and separation. When we say one group does something better than another, we stress the division more than the possibility of working together.

I do stand for recognizing the strengths, gifts and talents of the person or group that I am in relationship with in the moment. I believe this is one of the great powers of using a coaching perspective. We are trained to see the positive attributesthe brilliance–in people, even more than they might acknowledge and claim for themselves…yet. By seeing the best of an individual in the moment, we see both their contribution and their potential for growth.

My suggestion is to take the time to really see and learn from the person you are talking to. If we instead define people by a gender, age or culture, we see them in a frame of reference that is hard to change and often out-of-date in our evolving world.

Therefore, I question the value of Diversity programs that teach the strengths or limitations of one group over another, as if a gender, age or culture had superior attributes the world must come to recognize. I cringe when I see classes on “Gen X, Y, Z” and even ones that promote the idea that women make better leaders than men. Even more appalling, I’ve found some developmental programs that try to make the minorities more like the majority…how crazy is that? Shouldn’t we be teaching how to connect and value each other in the moment?

The first time I taught in Taiwan, a man reprimanded me for not reading up on the culture before I went. I told him I had learned a few things but planned on being curious, listening and learning when I got there. He proceeded to tell me what I needed to know as a woman and a teacher in Asia. Of course, he was dead wrong. I was valued as a senior manager regardless of being a woman. The people in my class were very participative and responsive without much prodding. They taught me how to be with them. I was open to learn. It turned out the man with the advice had only been to Japan and had no idea what I would experience in Taiwan.

Instead of Diversity programs, what if companies had Group Inclusions Programs where first we discover our similarities and create a context of connection before identifying what strengths each person can contribute to the team or community? We might find new ways of being together without using our gender, age or culture as an excuse for keeping the lines drawn in the sand.

The quality of our relationships equates to “social capital.” Just as you own a computer or college degree, your relationships add value to all your social constructs. Your business depends on your personal networks; your company’s productivity and innovation is dependent on robust relationships; communities need supportive relationships to thrive. Social capital is as necessary as financial capital.

To build social capital, we need to listen at three levels:

  1. Listen for similarities
  2. Listen for strengths in the context of our similarities
  3. Listen for a sense of purpose

I will focus on each of these listening perspectives in following newsletters plus give you tips for hearing from these vantage points. Here I’ll summarize how each adds to your social capital.

We listen for similarities by sharing stories that reveal our wishes, needs, disappointments, hopes and dreams. When we first listen for how we are similar, we build connection.

In the context of similarities and connection, we can then listen for the strengths, gifts, talents, skills, and attitudes a person can contribute. There are a number of tools that can be used to help people to claim and articulate what they bring to the table. When we acknowledge our differences as contributions to a group or project, we accept them as gifts that add to the group instead of aspects that separate.

Finally, we listen for purpose. When we align passionate energy with what everyone is trying to achieve, the force creates magic beyond expectation. Sense of purpose stirs action and creativity. Teams, organizations and cultures require people to band together in communal involvement and spirit to survive and thrive. Our collective survival depends on our need to feel that we belong and can contribute to what ties us together. When we listen for what inspires people’s passion and then align these energies into a common goal, we create social capital strong enough to build empires.

Meg Wheatley said, “We can change the world when we start listening to one another again.” When we bring people together focusing first on similarities instead of on differences, then listen for everyone’s unique contributions to the group and goal, and finally listen for what stirs each person’s sense of purpose and passion, we are fostering inclusion of the highest order.

Next UpHow to Coach People to Acknowledge Similarities. Can’t wait? Contact me to talk about how your organization can create passionate inclusion today.
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