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How to Practice Strategic Diversity Management (SDM)

Diversity is a reality in America today. Whether you let diversity be a drain on your organization or a dynamic contributor to your mission, vision and strategy is both a choice and a challenge. To build on the promise of diversity demands that you practice strategic diversity management (SDM), which is, at its core, the craft of making quality decisions in the midst of the differences, similarities and tensions that make up diversity.

There are some fundamental concepts associated with SDM that you need before you can even begin to practice SDM.

Concept #1: Diversity—What It Is, What It Isn’t
In practice, when someone says, “This is a diverse group,” most often the unstated reference is to race, ethnicity or gender. And, particularly in the workplace, diversity is often understood to mean affirmative action, with a focus on race and gender. This circumstance profoundly shortchanges the reality of diversity.

When defined accurately, diversity is a universal phenomenon. That means that we can apply techniques for its management to any set of differences, similarities or tensions in the midst of any collective mixture.

Concept #2: Strategic Diversity Management Is a Learnable Craft
SDM is a craft for enhancing the way people make quality decisions in situations where there are critical differences, similarities and tensions. Because it is a cognitive skill, anyone can learn to use it.

Where could you use SDM? In the workplace, it can be applied to issues having to do with acquisitions and mergers, workforce composition, teams, product lines and customers and markets.

Concept #3: Diversity Tension Is Natural
Diversity tension is the stress, strain and anxiety that tend to flow from the interaction of differences and similarities. It is not automatic conflict or hostility. It is, in fact, a natural accompaniment of diversity. This is important to remember when assessing diversity progress. Frequently, diversity tension is seen as a sign of a lack of progress when that is not necessarily so.

Concept #4: Being “Diversity Challenged” Doesn’t Necessarily Make You a Bad Person
Being diversity challenged is to have difficulty making decisions when differences, similarities and tensions exist. That’s it. It doesn’t mean that you necessarily have a predisposition to handle diversity poorly. It says nothing necessarily about your character or mindset. It also says nothing necessarily about motivation. It means simply that you are unable to make good decisions in the midst of diversity.

Further, diversity itself doesn’t relate solely to race or gender or the like. For instance, many people are diversity challenged when faced with complexity. Working continuously in an overly complex environment can have negative consequences for both individuals and their organizations; it becomes increasingly harder to make quality decisions.

Since people can be diversity challenged for a number of reasons, we must be careful in diagnosing and interpreting racial incidents. In analyzing corporate level racial conflicts, for example, it’s important to know the principal cause of the dynamics. It may, in fact, be racisim. But it is equally possible that individuals on both sides of the conflict lack the skills needed to work together productively. Or it could be that an overly complex environment is causing the difficulty. And, of course, it could be all of the above.

Preoccupation with eliminating racism can prevent quality decision making, focusing attention on only one of a number of reasons for being diversity challenged.

Concept #5: Being Diversity Capable Is the Goal
The end goal is to become diversity capable, which means mastering the craft of making quality decisions in spite of differences, similarities and tensions. It means that we learn how to make quality decisions even though we may remain uncomfortable with certain components of the diversity mix that is present. This is possible if we see diversity as a neutral issue and, further, focus on the essentials.

We need to focus on what is absolutely necessary to accomplish our goal or that of the organization—in other words, diversity efforts must be requirements driven.

This article is excerpted by permission of the publisher from Building on the Promise of Diversity, pp. 101–112, by R. Roosevelt Thomas, Jr. Copyright 2006, R. Roosevelt Thomas, Jr. Published by AMACOM, AMA’s book division. For more about this book and other AMA titles, visit www.amanet.org/books