March 21st, 2011
What looks like resistance is often a lack of clarity.
-Chip and Dan Heath
I was recently having a conversation about my work, and the senior leader that I was talking with took issue with the way in which I was using the words diversity and inclusion. I was accused of watering down diversity and doing kumbaya, feel-good presentations on diversity that failed to tackle the stuff that really matters.
A core component of my work is about helping to bring clarity and consistency to the language and logic that we use in diversity and inclusion work. I always spend some of my time with groups talking about what diversity means, what the key characteristics of diversity are and doing the same thing with inclusion. I see this as incredibly important because every time I go into an organization and ask employees and leaders what diversity and inclusion are and why they matter to their organization, I hear a bunch of different stuff that does not usually even make a lot of sense. No consistency. No clarity. We might be using the same words (diversity and inclusion) but we are actually all talking about something different…I think it is very difficult to have well informed and actionable conversations when there is no common language in place.
From my perspective…
Diversity means difference and inclusion means our ability to include difference.
Some folks think that I am trying to take attention away from issues related to race and / or gender with this definition. Some people think that diversity means race relations. Some people think that it means social justice. Some people think that I am trying to say that diversity means everything and so it ends up meaning nothing. This conversation continues to bubble up in my work, so I want to make a few points about why I use the definitions that I use.
- The actual meaning of the word diversity is difference. I am not making something up here, I am using the actual definition of the word…which I think is a pretty logical approach. Diversity does not mean race or race relations. If you want to talk about race or race relations, then use those words. If you want to talk about social justice, then use those words.
- I do not want to take attention away from race and / or gender or any other specific issue of diversity. I think that we continue to be deeply and profoundly dysfunctional regarding race and gender and it was actually racial health disparities that brought me into this line of work. I think that by having a consistent and logical foundation in place regarding difference we are much more likely to have valuable and actionable conversations about specific kinds of difference (such as race, ethnicity, gender, orientation, etc.).
- I have been told a number of times that I am trying to say diversity means everything, and it ends up meaning nothing. I am not saying that diversity means everything, I am saying that it means difference (because it does). Difference does take many forms though, there are maybe countless ways in which we can be different from each other. This also does not mean that I am saying that all these kinds of difference are the same (which I have also been accused of)…simply that they are the same kind of thing. A sunny day is by no means the same thing as a hurricane, but they are both weather. Differences in thinking styles are not the same thing as differences in values. Differences in values is not the same thing as differences in race or ethnicity or orientation (all aspects of our social identity). But they are the same kind of thing…they are kinds of difference. And again, if we are not wanting to talk about difference, there are other words for us to use.
- I am not watering the word down. I am actually trying to save the word. It is 2011 and we scratch at our heads at why there is still so much work to do related to diversity and inclusion, yet we are still having conversations about “what diversity is.” Maybe our greatest barrier to further progress is that this remains an issue that seems very vague and ambiguous to many people, primarily about platitudes and political correctness. It is watered down now, it means a bunch of different stuff to a bunch of people…and to some people it has become too negative, too complicated, too charged. On a regular basis I hear business leaders, HR professionals and diversity practitioners that are ready to give up on the word and move to something else. We should not run away from the word, it is a big, beautiful and powerful word. And it means difference.
Words do matter. Language is messy by nature, which is why we must be careful in how we use it. As leaders, after all, we have little else to work with. We typically don’t use hammers and saws, heavy equipment, or even computers to do our real work. The essence of leadership — what we do with 98 percent of our time — is communication. To master any management practice, we must start by bringing discipline to the domain in which we spend most of our time, the domain of words.
Be good to each other.