Diversity, Leadership, and Making Organizations Work

Commentary by J. Thomas Ranken, Washington Clean Technology Alliance

All too often, diversity has no real meaning in the success of an organization.  It often has everything to do with internal politics and little to do with actually bringing people together to work intelligently on solving problems.  It presumes that if you create an organization that has people with different colors, sex, sexual orientation, religion, and ethnicity, you will get a superior organization with a superior result.

That isn’t true.

Dark suited men about to engage in a morning double file jog around the block.
Dark suited men about to engage in a morning double file jog around the block in Shanghai.  Not diverse.

Too often, groups are created that have surface diversity, but have little diversity of thought.  While individuals appear to be different, each member is really chosen because they have the prerequisite viewpoint.  There is diversity of color, but not of thought.

That fails to bring together people with truly different perspectives that can bring unique talents and outlooks to the issue at hand.  It usually ensures that one perspective dominates the process.

So, consider two thoughts:  First, most people share common high ideals.  Second, people really are different in the way they approach problem solving.

In America today, it may seem that the first assertion is untrue.  But consider a wedge issue like gun control.  All too often, we don’t even want to hear the other.  It isn’t just that we disagree—we have no respect for other perspectives.  Our opponents are stupid.

Last night, I was at a church meeting discussing a panel discussion on gun control.  One of the participants strenuously objected to including the other side.  They are, after all, at least a little crazy and prone to violence.  Certainly, we couldn’t have that kind of disruption in a church discussion.

This is both common and very disappointing.  It ignores the meaningful goal for which nearly all Americans would agree.  Gun control is important not because most of us care about guns; it is because we care passionately about children that get hurt.  The debate should not be about guns—but about the best way to keep innocents from being killed by madmen.  We should debate how to best reduce the number of people that get hurt.  The answer might very well include more gun regulation.  And it might include other things, but we should be debating the best way to get to a common goal.

It is usually the case that both sides have their share of intellectual extremists.  Both sides have intelligent viewpoints, too.  We might even learn a thing or two, if we listen.

Great leaders would focus us on high ideals that we share in common.  But I am inclined to think that most of our leaders—on all sides—don’t focus on high ideals.  Often, they care too much about short-term results or are blinded by details.

I believe that, at most levels, Americans are united by common ideals of decency.  We agree on most high ideals.

Trees in fog 1

But we are very different.

One example of this was described by David McClelland, a Wesleyan University professor of psychology.  In his 1961 book, The Achieving Society, he described three different kinds of motivation:  The need for achievement, the need for affiliation, and the need for power.  All of us, he thought, have some of each of these motivations, but each of us is different.

  • Achievement motivated people seek attainment of realistic, but challenging goals and advancement.  They need feedback and a sense of accomplishment.
  • The power motivated needs to be influential and effective.  They need to make an impact.  They need to lead.  They want their ideas to win.
  • The affiliation motivated person needs relationships and wants interaction with other people.  These people are team players.

Of course, this is just one of many ways in which we differ.  We differ in more than just color, sex, sexual orientation, religion, and ethnicity.

It seems to me a really strong team would have some level of all of McClelland’s motivations.  There would be people that are primarily motivated by getting the task done, some who had leadership capacity, and some who were great team members.

Meaningful diversity of perspective, guided by leadership than emphasizes high ideals that unite the team, is important in building a strong organization.

Imagine a team that not only contained obvious diversity, but had real diversity of background, life experiences, religion, training, education, and beliefs—united by a common vision.  When America has been great, this is what has made her great.

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