To Achieve Ultimate Diversity, Look Past Categories and Focus on Individuals

This post was originally published on November 9, 2018 the American Management Association Playbook blog.

The tendency to categorize, accompanied by the need to put people in their box, drives much that goes on in our minds, including in management practice. But categorizing people and their activities is an artificial, invalidated idea—a distraction from inclusion and understanding and from diversity, in most cases. There is a much better way to understand each human being and how they are an integral aspect of a community.

A decades-long study at Harvard School of Education found that there is no mathematical or organizing process for sorting human communities into natural groups that is valid or even useful—and that such attempts are likely destructive to understanding and inclusion. The culmination of the study is research work completed and organized into a book by Todd Rose. The End of Average (HarperCollins, 2016) is a scathing critique that shows there is zero evidence to support efforts to categorize people by type, approach to work, or racial heritage.

In fact, there is great evidence that seeing each individual as unique has great payoffs. Any form of category makes it difficult—and maybe even impossible—to see individuals for who they are and what they can bring. It works against individuals being able to understand and develop themselves as well. The greatest unifier is the process of seeing and engaging each human, discovering them as individuals—their singularity. One of one!

How does one achieve this? It feels like an overwhelming task. My practice with organizations, for more than 40 years, has been to teach them how to design work and develop people around what I call “individual Essence.” It is that which, if everything else was taken away or lost, cannot be removed without losing who you are. This is not the same as one’s strengths, which can be built over time and relate mostly to our ability to do, rather than our character and source of values.

Ultimate diversity relies on each individual

When helping organizations to work with Essence, I introduce three principles to guide the transition. Applying these principles works to elevate individuals and increase capacity across an organization:

Principle 1: Commit to work design that awakens Essence and gives individuals work to do that enables its expression. Stop teaching/testing to find out what category people fit in or how well they are doing in meeting an aspirational group-defined mastery. Set people to defining their own contribution to the strategic work of the business and creating a plan for how they will measure themselves and engage others in reflecting on progress. These contributions need to be directed to changing the lives of stakeholders such as customers, as designated by market strategy.

Principle 2: Design work so the evolution of capacity is the direction, not the achievement of preset competencies that categorize people. Wrapping the new capacity around the contributions that are promised by an individual provides the grounds for a developmental culture and paradigm of design.

Consider Colgate Palmolive in South Africa. As apartheid in governing was beginning to be dismantled, the new constitution called on all corporations to shift the makeup of their management to reflect the same percentage as the racial mix of the population at large. Colgate chose to initiate a deep engagement and development process where everyone in the company made a promise to implement the new strategy.

The company realized it needed to build capacity in critical thinking and business practice to shift the proportion of black managers to 95% of management. But white South Africans were skeptical and concerned, and if the company had simply forced the change, it would have created a competitive divide. Instead, black and white employees started working together on challenging endeavors and were introduced to each other while they accomplished great work.

Within six months, Colgate had met the five-year deadline, with 95% black managers. There was great pride in how it had been done—not by structural change, but by building capacity and capability and making a difference in their communities through the business.

Principle 3: Make ongoing education and development core to the organization. Ongoing education programs not only cultivate top talent in all people, they also encourage inclusive work practices within the organization. Organizations that try to be inclusive but do so by working around or dividing people among different types actually are encouraging divisions. However, when people are working individually and collectively, with each contributing their unique offering, the business is unified.

It takes practice and a redesign of work to bring forward the singularity of each person and see it included in the work to be done, where inclusion really shows up every day.

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