How to Think About Diversity

Astrocytes brain cells

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”


Diversity is not just thinking about why women continue to be edited out, or groups that don't consider anyone other than the usual suspects, or issues with age up and down the spectrum. It's a term that captures the differences in perception we have between how we view ourselves, our story, and how others see or perceive us. Diversity is about how individuals are wired differently.

What does it mean to be wired differently?

Sweet spotThe first time Jim Collins talked publicly at length about the research that led to his seminal book Good to Great it was on a stage at Fast Company Real Time event in Phoenix. In conversation with Alan Webber, Collins introduced the themes of Big Hairy Audacious Goals, the Hedgehog concept, Level 5 Leaders, and the idea that our sweet spot is at the intersection of three circles:

  1. what we're really good at — and have a chance to become passionate about
  2. what we were born to do — where we can become the best in the world
  3. what people will pay us to do — and drives our economic engine

[The image above and further definitions are from my notes at the event.] The second circle — what we were born to do — is a main component of our being wired differently.

An example from my professional experience. I once worked with a mathematician. He was in charge of the development of risk mapping tools. He didn't look or sound like anything we imagine a stereotypical mathematician would be. However, the way he processed information and thought about problems was radically different from the way many of us who were okay in mathematics did.

Our diversity was good for the firm, but in the day to day interactions it required an adjustment — an open and curious mind and clear language.

A few years later I worked in an organization that wanted to increase its performance threefold but would not be able to increase budgets or hires. If this scenario sounds common, it's because it is now standard operating procedure in most industries.

There is a reason for the popular saying that “sales is from Mars and marketing is from Venus.” The people who gravitate towards certain careers and jobs have aptitudes that make them suited to those roles and functions — we deal with situations in certain ways and we get results by certain paths.

This diversity creates situations where things are lost in translation — between how we think, what we say, and how we go about doing our work. Conversely, teams may also be missing critical players — people who are wired to see the world in a certain way and draw from a certain operating method.

In our case we used the Birkman Method to identify the similarities and differences into the team's behaviors and motivational interests.

The Birkman Method® includes the five following major perspectives:

1. Usual Behavior – an individual’s effective behavioral style of dealing with relationships and tasks.

2. Underlying Needs – an individual’s expectations of how relationships and social situations should be navigated in context of the relationship or situation.

3. Stress Behaviors – an individual’s ineffective style of dealing with relationships or tasks; behavior observed when underlying needs are not met.

4. Interests – an individual’s expressed preference for job titles based on the assumption of equal economic rewards.

5. Organizational Focus – the perspective in which an individual views problems and solutions relating to organizational goals.

Birkman MethodThe tool helps people understand the gap between perceptions and behaviors and contribute to the design of a better experience — for self and the organization. Due to it being non-judgmental, there are no right or wrong behaviors or interests.

As a methodology Birkman Method has been used for over 50 years to assess human potential and enhance performance. The initial research was funded by the National Science Foundation. More than 3.0 million records are in the Birkman data base today, and it has been translated into nine (9) languages.

When we mapped the teams supporting the business development function of the organization to the quadrant represented above, we found that there were striking similarities in competences and behaviors. In other words, the company kept hiring the same type of person and lacked broader diversity in the way people were wired to think and operate.

The work that followed our assessment got us to where we wanted to be. Everyone loves a story with a happy ending.

Getting the proper perspective on the nuances between individuals and understanding where we need help — say to go from a task-centered view of work to a system one — gives us the opportunity to improve clarity and communication. A business with a very aggressive growth goal may also uncover high stress levels, which means behaviors change from normal operating conditions.

We encounter diversity in many non-obvious forms. From the way we are wired, to the nuances of context-based behaviors with or without stress. Technology has sped up the rate of situational change. Gaining a better appreciation of our perception and behavioral gaps helps us see how everyone is “fighting a hard battle.”

In some cases we might need to become more aware, change our habits. In others we might need to get out more, actively seek different reference points. When we take the extra step is assessing where we are we create the conditions for a more productive experience as we work to get where we want to be.

Genuine connection supports confidence, and great work stems from that stance.

When we're operating at our best, we are likely in an environment that exposes us to diversity of thinking and doing. We need both — learning to think better and learning by doing. Better knowledge leads to better data. We also need each other.

Which assemblage of strengths will deliver endurance and resilience to your business sustainably?

We are constantly interpreting reality. When we are on the same page about what that is, even as our roles and skills are different, we perform better. Here's an interpretation of Don't Let me Misunderstand Cover by The Trails Acoustic Trio, for example.



[top image: Nancy Kedersha/Science Photo Library]

[edited from archives]