The Oxymoron “Diversity”

The Oxymoron "Diversity"
One of the problems with diversity in the workplace is hypocrisy.  We ask people to bring their authentic selves to work and yet what is often meant is bring the parts of you that we are comfortable with and the rest please fall in line. Diversity means diverse thinking, beliefs and behaviours, this can be truly rich or explosive, therefore, organisations try and keep a lid on it.

I delivered a diversity and inclusion workshop to one of the country’s top law firms with our learning map Equally Yours.  We were warned that one of the senior partners would be attending and if he was not happy the whole project would be pulled. In fact, he was the most vocal and engaged, admitting at the end he loved the session. One of the key reasons why is that the workshop validated his experience of being a white middle-class man who grew up watching Benny Hill.  He was able to share that he was sick of being told he was “wrong” and “you can’t say that”.

I recognised that within the diversity discourse too many people are being told they are “wrong” and “you can’t say that”.  Those who are hearing this are white middle-class males – the majority of our society’s decision makers.

When people are told you are “wrong” and “you can’t say that” they are likely to pull up the drawbridge. People become defensive and then play it safe.  They will engage, employ and promote people that look like them, think like them and talk like them because it’s safe and easier.

Unconscious bias is reality and it’s a real eye-opener for people when they realise the prejudices and thoughts which are deep rooted. These do impact on how people behave and will impact on decision making in business. But people can only learn if the drawbridge is down.

We recently did a session and we had a young white guy attend who only ever dated non-white females. When I asked him what he wanted from the session, he said: “surprise me”. He felt that because he dated women from various corners of the world, he was clued up on diversity and inclusion. He admitted at the end that he had been extremely blinkered. And that’s when change really happens.

Another strong theme in the diversity discourse is “disagreement equates to opposition”. This causes polarisation instead of diversity. We have to be clear that there are parameters and consequences for discriminatory behaviour whether direct or indirect. But we can’t allow diversity to be undermined by fear, opposition or conflict. These are inhibitors, not enablers.

Diversity requires bravery.  It requires having healthy discourse to increase knowledge and understanding.  It requires people to reflect and ask questions of themselves.  Why do I think like I think?  Why don’t I feel comfortable around certain types of people? The answers to these questions then provide the basis for internal change in thoughts, emotions and feelings which in turn results in real change.

So allow people to be validated, but challenge them to challenge themselves. Take them on a journey of discovery, make it challenging, engaging and fun. Be brave and you will truly see how the authenticity of diversity can bring something amazing to your organisation, your employees and to your customers.


Akin Thomas, CEO of AKD Solutions