Making Differences Matter

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Harvard Business Review September, 1996 / October, 1996 HEADLINE: MAKING DIFFERENCES MATTER: A NEW PARADIGM FOR MANAGING DIVERSITY BYLINE: by David A. Thomas and Robin J. Ely; David A. Thomas is an associate professor at the Harvard Business School in Boston, Massachusetts. Robin J. Ely is an associate professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs in New York City. Their research and teaching focus on the influence of race, gender, and ethnicity on career dynamics and organizational effectiveness. ABSTRACT: MAKING DIFFERENCES MATTER: A NEW PARADIGM FOR MANAGING DIVERSITY DAVID A. THOMAS and ROBIN J. ELY Diversity efforts in the workplace have been undertaken with great goodwill, but, ironically, they often end up fueling tensions. They rarely spur the leaps in organizational effectiveness that are possible. Two paradigms for diversity are responsible, but a new one is showing it can address the problem. The discrimination-and-fairness paradigm is based on the recognition that discrimination is wrong. Under it, progress is measured by how well the company achieves its recruitment and retention goals. The paradigm idealizes assimilation and color- and gender-blind conformism. The access-and-legitimacy paradigm, on the other hand, celebrates differences. Under it, organizations seek access to a more diverse clientele, matching their demographics to targeted consumers. But that paradigm can leave employees of different identity-group affiliations feeling marginalized or exploited. In companies with the right kind of leadership, a third paradigm is showing that beneficial learning takes place and organizations become more effective in fulfilling their missions if employees are encouraged to tap their differences for creative ideas. If all or most of eight preconditions are in place, the opportunities for growth are almost unlimited. Leaders in third-paradigm companies are proactive about learning from diversity; they encourage people to make explicit use of cultural experience at work; they fight all forms of dominance and subordination, including those generated by one functional group acting superior to another; and they ensure that the inevitable tensions that come from a genuine effort to make way for diversity are acknowledged and resolved with sensitivity. Why should companies concern themselves with diversity? Until recently, many managers answered this question with the assertion that discrimination is wrong, both legally and morally. But today manages are voicing a second notion as well. A more

diverse workforce, they say, will increase organizational effectiveness. It will lift morale, bring greater access to new segments of the marketplace, and enhance productivity. In short, they claim, diversity will be good for business. Yet if this is true -- and we believe it is -- where are the positive impacts of diversity? Numerous and varied initiatives to increase diversity in corporate America have been under way for more than two decades. Rarely, however, have those efforts spurred leaps in organized effectiveness. Instead, many attempts to increase diversity in the workplace have backfired, sometimes even heightening tensions among employees and hindering a company's performance. BODY: This article offers an explanation for why diversity efforts are not fulfilling their promise and presents a new paradigm for understanding -- and leveraging -- diversity. It is our belief that there is a distinct way to unleash the powerful benefits of a diverse workforce. Although these benefits include increased profitability, they go beyond financial measures to encompass learning, creativity, flexibility, organizational and individual growth, and the ability of a company to adjust rapidly and successfully to market changes. The desired transformation, however, requires a fundamental change in the attitudes and behaviors of an organization's leadership. And that will come only when senior managers...
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