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Build Good Leaders and Diversity Will Follow
An Intelligent Approach to Diversity Training

Author: Karl A. Schmidt
Contributed by: Parker, Milliken, Clark, O’Hara & Samuelian

 

 

Successful Super Bowl Football coach and long-time TV commentator, John Madden, tells about his perceptions of the personality differences between offensive and defensive linemen.  Mind you, to most observers they are indistinguishable behemoths, but Coach Madden points out that offensive linemen tend to be neat and precise, to be polite and have well-ordered lockers.  This fits with their job of carrying out precise assignments in connection with each play the quarterback directs the team to run.  In contrast, Coach Madden wryly describes defensive linemen as people who were typically feisty, uncooperative children, who were ill behaved in class and generally disruptive.  This personality fits with their football duty to disrupt the opposing team’s precisely laid plans and plays and generally raise havoc.   Each type has the strength and general football knowledge to give a credible effort at either pursuit, but coaches who are wise get optimum results from discerning who is best suited to the different positions.

Many supervisors and managers fail to make a similar effort to determine the underlying skills, abilities and traits of their subordinates.  Such superiors see their charges as “all of a type” and only seek an “adequate” level of performance from most of them, never considering the possibility of untapped talents and underutilized productivity.

This problem exists even in homogenous work forces, where all workers look pretty much the same.  It can be much worse with a diverse workforce, where such differences as age, race, sex and physical ability or disability can further impede detection of relevant skills, talents and experience.  The dull manager might not be alert to such skills even in a homogenous workforce.  But even a more diligent manager can overlook them if (s)he is burdened with unknown or unsuspected biases and/or blind spots which prevent them from fully understanding subordinates.

Diversity Training is often offered as the solution for such issues.  Unfortunately much diversity training, though well meant, comes across as a touchy-feely exercise in assuring an idealistic instructor that the participants know how to play the “PC” game.  The primary accomplishment of such sessions is that cynicism is deepened and real progress is inhibited.  There is, however, a very good alternative.

With humor, grace and non-threatening slice of life of examples, trainees can easily relate to the fascinating differences among us and warm to the challenge of achieving optimum leadership of each subordinate – not in pursuit of some vaguely defined nirvana of diversity for its own sake – but to improve the commitment and productivity of the entire staff.  When supervisors and managers are approached in this more common sense way, they have an easier time coming to accept that their attention and participation in such training can reap rewards for them and their departments, as well as serving the goals of diversity.

For example, a longitudinal study of white males by age groups reveals surprising differences in life motivations, career perspectives, work ethics and attitudes about each other.  Participants readily recognize family, friends and acquaintances and co-workers in these descriptions.  The many degrees of nuance thus illustrated further alert participants to the need to manage their subordinates as individuals in order to optimize their relationships and maximize their productivity.

With this insight and motivation participants are more open to exploring their own potential blind spots, stereotypes and biases.  Given the training foundation which has been established, these efforts can be seen not as perfunctory exercises in political correctness, but keys to developing better relationships with all subordinates, and thus encouraging greater commitment and productivity from them.

These concepts meet with practical application when supervisors and mangers are then asked to review their personal practices along several dimensions of subordinate development.  Two examples among these many dimensions are soliciting input on projects and providing opportunities for participation in interesting or broadening assignments.  While it is not unusual for a manager to come to rely on certain favorites who are deemed to be the most capable staff members, this reliance over time can become exclusive and, in effect, shut other subordinates out.  This creates dissension and damages morale and productivity among the “unchosen many.”

This kind of self-examination typically results in the realization that at least some subordinates are not receiving a reasonable allocation of supervisor attention.  Managers confronted with this realization can appreciate the purpose of additional exercises which amount to individualized personnel relations audits.  Issues of criticism, communications, listening skills and feedback, among others, are taken up.

At this point, the traverse from feel good diversity lectures to traditional industrial and employee relations based training nears completion.  While the manager/trainees are aware that they are in diversity training, the case has been made that their department performance may be enhanced (and their own careers advanced) by embracing the techniques and concepts being discussed.  A collateral benefit is that extension of such employee relations techniques to all subordinates improves general morale and substantially dampens exposure to discrimination lawsuits.  The latter is a primary objective of most diversity training.  Unfortunately, that training often fails to accomplish this important goal because it alienates participant managers.  A more thoughtful approach, which makes an affirmative rather than threatening case to managers, can yield far more lasting and more positive results.


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