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Diversity in the Coming Society: Navigational Instruments for Troubled Times

Diversity in the Coming Society | IE Building Resilience

In complex times, organizations must urgently evolve through management of diversity. Certain navigational instruments can help us with this challenge.

By Celia de Anca, Director of the Centre for Diversity in Global Management at IE University.



In these days of lockdown, I dream of navigating the open seas, sailing over the waves accompanied by skilled sailors using the best navigational instruments, confident I will reach a safe harbor.

In this article, I’d like to share with you how I believe diversity can provide us with two basic instruments, which as part of a diversity navigation chart can help organizations weather the storm.

1. The sextant: diversity as a movement from the individual to society and back

I am different from you in many ways, but only some of my differences are relevant. For example: for some people, my gender, my background or my education mean they can classify me in subgroups other than my interests or ideas.
Some of these subgroups are based on normative behaviors, for example: women are supposed to be empathetic, Latinos are supposed to be extroverts or people with a background in liberal arts are generalists. Whether I conform or not to those stereotypes doesn’t matter, since they can be imposed on me through categorization.

Therefore, the first rule for navigating diversity is to understand that there are two distinct processes at play. The first is group identification, by which we decide to identify with a certain group, along with its attributes and behaviors. The second is categorization, in which the process is external, imposed on us.

The diversity sextant helps us to understand that different diversity behaviors are often the product of categorization and are not a deterministic prediction of an individual behavior: the fact that I am a woman does not presuppose that I am empathetic.

Therefore, companies need to use this first navigational instrument to understand the pool of talent inside the organization and thus eliminate categorization or external entry barriers.

2. The compass: diversity as a binding element that connects or separates different human aggregations 

One way to understand diversity is to understand what binds members of a specific human aggregation, or how teams operate in an organization.

Sameness: I share sameness with other humans who possess the same demographic diversity as me. For example, if a government suddenly decides that women cannot have bank accounts, because I am a woman, I will not be able to open a bank account. I am bound to other women based on this categorization. This can also apply to race, religion, gender or physical characteristics. In short, the binding element in demographic diversity is sameness.

Affinity: I share affinity with other members of a group, based on my experiences at school, university, work, my interests, friends, etc. Affinity is thus the binding element of experiential diversity.

Complementarity: My way of seeing the world is unique and so is yours, but we can share ideas and find areas to complement each other’s ideas and enlarge our understanding. Therefore, complementarity is the binding element of our cognitive diversity.

This second navigational instrument helps us to understand that demographic, experiential and cognitive diversity have sameness, affinity and complementarity as binding elements, and that complementarity and affinity are far more important for designing teams than sameness. For example, as a woman, I want the organization to eliminate all entry barriers to women so I can enter the organization. However, once inside, I would not like to be put on women-only teams; I would rather be on a team where I feel a certain affinity with its members, so I feel emotional attraction to it. Most of all, I want to participate in a team and complement the other members. I want to contribute with my difference toward a common good, among diverse, but equal, individuals.

The diversity navigation chart

We now need to see how these instruments can be integrated into a navigation chart. We can use the model of the three types of diversity to apply a targeted strategy that will generate better results and help design the navigation chart that each organization needs to weather the storm.

  1. The best strategy to manage demographic diversity is diversity and inclusion. Diversity and inclusion strategies single out the individual from an aggregate sameness, eliminate any potential barriers and thus allow the individual to contribute with his/her talent to a common good.
  2. The best strategy to manage experiential diversity is teamwork affinity analysis. Different analytic models help companies to identify the different levels of experiential diversity (studies, experience, and affiliations) to achieve desired team results (resilience or performance). Therefore, the team affinity level helps companies to define the most appropriate experiential diversity strategies.
  3. The best strategy to manage cognitive diversity is open project management. Advanced companies are increasingly creating the context for complementarity to emerge and generate innovation, as confirmed by recent studies on the link between cognitive diversity and innovation.

We are living through complex times that create uncertainty. “Business as usual” or cosmetic measures for diversity won’t work after this crisis. However, organizations can evolve and even be disruptive through management of diversity, which can help them navigate the storm and reach a safe harbor.