Over the past few months I’ve been having a slow binge watch of “Mad Men” on Netflix. With the show’s clever scripts, enigmatic lead characters and fastidiously detailed depiction of the 1960’s I’m really enjoying it. There’s one thing that makes “Mad Men” hard to watch though, and that’s the way the male advertising executives in the show treat women. There’s still a way to go to achieve full gender equality and diversity but thankfully we’ve come a long way since that time.
When organisations think about diversity there’s deservedly a lot of consideration of gender, race and disability. There’s also a growing consideration of factors such as sexual orientation and age. This focus is very important so that we give members of groups which may face disadvantage at work the equal opportunity, respect and support they deserve.
There’s another, less obvious form of diversity which is also key for organisations that want to thrive. This diversity is not about obvious differences such as gender, race or age. Rather, it is about the subtle, often invisible differences between people that make us all unique and add up to make us who we are. Some of these differences are personality type, talents and skills, communication styles, decision-making approaches, leadership attributes, education, life experiences, personal values and more.
Consider the following 2 people who are very similar in terms of gender, race, age, and health:
Josephine is 41 years old and grew up as the 3rd of 6 children in the mining town of Mt Isa in Queensland. She excelled at school and went on to study physics at university, where she received the university medal as the top student in her year. She’s had a wide range of jobs, and has never stayed with one employer for longer than 3 years. A highlight of her working career was her 5 years in Japan where she taught English. She’s happily married with 2 young children. She also helps to care for her ageing mother who lives alone and is in the early stages of alzheimers disease. Josephine is a deep thinker and is motivated by helping others. She plays the oboe to relax.
Suzanne has just turned 40, celebrating with a big party where she invited all of her many friends. She grew up as an only child in Sydney, with loving and supportive parents. She was bored at school and ended up leaving at the age of 15 to get on with her life. What she lacked in formal schooling she made up for in energy and confidence which saw her start 3 successful businesses by the time she had turned 30. When Suzanne is not working she’s often found on the hockey field where she has captained her club side for many years and previously represented her state. She’s happily single and hopes to stay that way. Suzanne says her goals are to pack in as many new experiences as possible and to become rich enough to own a house overlooking Sydney Harbour.
Based on a narrow view of diversity consisting only of obvious differences Josephine and Suzanne appear very similar. However, based on a broader consideration of diversity they could barely be more different. Smart organisations understand this broader form of diversity and they go out of their way to find people who don’t fit the same old mould. They recognise the differences between people and celebrate the unique contribution everyone can make. They understand that differences between people who are as different as Josephine and Suzanne can create some disagreements and challenges. They also understand, however, that this diversity of character and divergence of thinking is one of the keys to creating organisations which innovate, survive and prosper. Josephine and Suzanne are obviously both successful in their own right – combine their talents and the sky is the limit.
To fully capitalise on this less obvious form of diversity it’s important that people feel able to show their full selves at work. We all need to be able to tell our own stories and, just as importantly, we need to listen as others tell their stories. Once we know each other at a deeper level we can freely use our differing strengths and create something that is truly great. This is a great benefit for organisations and for the people who work in them.