The End of Diversity: How Leaders Make Differences Really Matter

By Martin N. DavidsonSpring 2012 | Print
Let’s be clear. You cannot lead in today’s global economy if you cannot negotiate diversity deftly. Doing that is what I call “Leveraging Difference.” When I began working with leaders on the issue of diversity more than 20 years ago, I often spent time trying to persuade them that focusing on diversity was an important thing to do. We used to debate how important changes in the makeup of the workforce would really be and at what point action would be necessary. Now, we don’t have time for that. When I work with 21st-century leaders who want to be effective, the importance of diversity is self-evident. The scope and complexity of the global environment, the impact of connective technologies, and the overarching importance of collaboration in today’s society make the need to learn how to navigate diversity a no-brainer.

But actually working in a way that builds on difference is a huge challenge. It requires more than leading teams and organizations that are made up of people with varied social identities, backgrounds, and experiences. That’s important, and typically it is what we talk about when we think about diversity. But that is not enough. Leaders who leverage difference adopt a mind-set of leadership that emboldens them to re-vision everything they do.

Two Frames: From Managing Diversity to Leveraging Difference

Enhancing the ability to navigate difference requires most leaders to change their mental model of diversity. For example, business bookshelves and academic journals are replete with titles about how to “manage diversity.” It’s as though the inevitable reality is that once you put different people and perspectives together, you are likely to have a mess that you will have to manage. In fairness, all of us can probably remember being put together with someone quite different from us and experiencing some disruption as a result. But there are also numerous examples of differences combining to create harmony and synergy. What if the most important leadership activity was to catalyze diversity, not just manage it?

This question is at the core of the distinction between traditional Managing Diversity and the new Leveraging Difference. There are a variety of differences between the two frames. For example, the Managing Diversity frame tends to focus on diversity of people and talent and thus to be seen primarily as a human resource issue. Diversity is all about making sure the people of different ethnicities, genders, cultures, and so on are recruited, hired, and developed. While this is important stuff, it is a narrow view of the impact difference can have on an organization, community, or society. A Leveraging Difference frame widens that view. Difference matters because it is embedded in the vision, mission, and strategy of the organization. It is foremost in the minds of everyone who cares about the organization because working with difference is what creates value. This is very much a departure from the experience that many people in organizations have that diversity is one extra activity to have to pay attention to, another box to be checked before they can get back to the work that matters. In a Leveraging Difference world, diversity and the core work are inextricably linked. You can’t do the work that matters well if you aren’t facile in dealing with differences.

This is one of many characteristics that distinguish the Managing Diversity and Leveraging Difference frames. But perhaps the most important one is actually the leader’s mind-set. The Managing Diversity frame is typically enacted by leaders who have a problemfocused mind-set toward difference. In contrast, leaders in a Leveraging Difference frame are usually focused on the opportunities the difference creates.

In Lift, Ryan and Robert Quinn develop the notion of comfort-centered approaches to situations as distinct from purpose-centered approaches. They argue that when people operate from a comfort-centered stance, they often approach situations as problems and seek to solve them. While there is nothing especially wrong with this—many problems do need solving—it contrasts with the more powerful alternative approach.

Being purpose-centered usually expands the options for dealing with a situation and helps create previously unimagined effective outcomes.

Leaders operating from a Managing Diversity viewpoint have difficulty seeing difference and diversity as anything but a problem when faced with the need to execute on diversity activities. They often understand the benefits of diversity in the abstract. But they struggle to understand how to turn diversity into an advantage in day-to-day situations. Without being able to see the practical benefit of diversity, they experience it as a burden and sometimes even a threat.

One manager from a mid-sized construction firm I’ll refer to as Home Building, Inc., lamented that diversity in his company was all about head count, and he understood neither why it was important nor how he could “find the heads.” For the Managing Diversity leader, diversity frequently goes hand in hand with stress. For leaders who share group identity with the majority of their employees (for example, white male leaders in a white male organization), diversity can generate psychological dissonance (“I’m not fully committed, but I have to act like I am”) and disrupt common routines (“It’s hard enough to hire; now I have to find diverse candidate slates, too?”). In contrast, a leader whose group identity differs from that of most employees may experience different stresses. A woman leading a predominantly male organization may feel pressure to make sure she doesn’t appear to favor women. Therefore she may feel that her commitment to diversity activities is in conflict with her need to seem objective and fair.

These pressures create a challenging by-product: threat rigidity. When people experience stress and disruption, they think, feel, and act in more constrained ways. They are less open to new information or novel ways of thinking about an issue. They are more likely to rely on well-learned or habitual behaviors. This makes it all the more difficult to see diversity as an opportunity. When I’m working with a group of leaders, I often ask the participants how they felt when they heard they were coming to a session on diversity. The response is almost always underwhelming. This lack of excitement and energy is symptomatic of a Managing Diversity frame. The problem-focused mentality inherent in Managing Diversity is frequently de-energizing for leaders.

In contrast, the Leveraging Difference frame invites leaders to explore the opportunities inherent when diversity of thought, identity, and perspective are present. This focus on opportunity is expansive and energizing. Recent research has shown the benefits of energized engagement on both performance and relationships in work settings. The physiological stimulation experienced by an individual in this state facilitates cognitive clarity and focus. This has the effect of energizing others with whom that person is working, stimulating more complex and innovative thinking, attracting and creating tangible resources to address the issues at hand, and generating higher levels of measurable performance. Interestingly, as Sigal G. Barsade and Donald E. Gibson report in Academy of Management Perspectives, this sort of highly engaged performance feeds a cycle of success: high performance legitimizes the work being undertaken by the leader or team, and that supports ongoing efficacy and continued high performance.

At a well-known retail company I refer to as the Fashion Place, a senior leader I call Hal became committed to engaging difference because of his experience collaborating with a female colleague, Olivia. This woman had the reputation of being quiet and having little to offer in the way of innovative ideas. But as Hal built a good working relationship with Olivia, he told me, he found that she was a highly associative thinker. It was often hard to have a linear conversation with her because she kept interjecting some new and seemingly unrelated thought. Over time, however, Hal realized that Olivia was one of the most creative marketing thinkers he had ever met. Together they cultivated a new—and very successful—line of children’s outerwear. Hal became a champion for individuals who operated differently from the norm. In search of outcomes like his and Olivia’s, he committed to interacting with colleagues who didn’t always fit in with the crowd. Not all of these collaborations were successful, but he persevered, realizing that at any point he might tap into benefits from people who didn’t quite fit.

Leveraging Difference leaders explore and exploit the conflicts that arise from difference, because they know that in discomfort and disagreement lie opportunities for innovation. Felton Barnes, general manager of the highest-performing business unit at a company I refer to as Delvin Mining Corporation, restructured his division’s leadership team when he assumed his GM role. He replaced five members of the team (all senior white men with long histories in the division) with individuals who had different functional backgrounds and more experience in other divisions. Four of the five were African American and three were women. He made the changes because he believed his predecessor had been reluctant to focus on continuous improvement in the manufacturing process, and he worried that the old team would share that conservatism.

The division’s sole product was also the company’s top-selling product, so it was understandable that the old regime would be reluctant to fix what wasn’t broken. But the new GM believed he could improve sales. This would require converting to a more efficient manufacturing process.

Barnes worked rigorously to build his team into a highfunctioning unit. For nearly two years, he enlisted the help of consultants skilled in working with diverse leadership teams. He and his team built knowledge about their collective functional competencies, learned how to engage in dialogue that encouraged creative thinking, and learned to negotiate cultural and gender differences among themselves. Team members reported measurable increases in interpersonal trust as well as in their trust of the competencies of their teammates. Barnes also employed a personal coach to help him be more inspirational and less defensive when faced with resistance. As a result of the team’s leadership, new processes were implemented that resulted in two consecutive years of record-setting profit.

How You Adopt a Leveraging Difference Mind-set

Having the sort of problem-focused mind-set that is prevalent in the Managing Diversity frame is not the worst thing in the world. Diversity problems do need to be identified and solved. But the opportunity-focused mind-set of the Leveraging Difference frame is where the real value in diversity is. How then can a leader shift from one frame to the other? A broad set of knowledge and skills make this shift possible. And it takes time to fully change one’s mind-set. But three actions can be instrumental in helping leaders transform how they approach difference.

Always Assume That Difference Matters

Part of shifting is overcoming the mind-set of ignoring difference. On the face of it this may sound odd. Of course, leaders don’t ignore difference, especially those who are interested in reading an article like this! But in fact, the impulse to seek commonality and unity often clouds the ability to identify and capitalize on difference. This is in part a consequence of the ethos of the Industrial revolution. Standardization so dominated how we thought about the economy and society that looking for ways to make things the same frequently becomes a modus operandi, both consciously and unconsciously. In the United States, the common assertion “I don’t see color” captures this mind-set. The statement reflects an ethos of not attending to difference— even though the difference does indeed exist.

In Europe many companies traditionally have taken diversity for granted and have spent decades fighting it by streamlining and integrating European supply systems. This has created a pervasive strategy of seeking to minimize differences among European markets and business locations. Unlike this, a Leveraging Difference mind-set counters these blindness-to-difference stances by emphasizing the notion that every person holds divergent perspectives from one’s own, and that there is something to be learned from those perspectives. Moreover, assuming that difference is always present and potentially relevant frees a leader to explore differences that may not be immediately evident. To practice this skill at the personal level, you could approach a new acquaintance with the intent to explore how that person is unique or different from yourself. The interaction would become one of exploration and learning.

Be Curious

Leaders can also accelerate their shift from a Managing Diversity to a Leveraging Difference mind-set by choosing to be curious about difference. This curiosity about differences provides the motivation to engage in the activities that actually enhance learning. Gerald Ames, a senior executive from Diacom Corporation, exemplified the highly curious leader. Ames was a white male, born and raised in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. He was extremely interested in culture and ethnicity, and he was energetic—almost aggressive—in his questioning about what was going on in his company. He described how few candidates of color to whom it had offered positions had accepted the offers. He wanted to learn why, and he wanted to understand why the employees of color who did come were so dissatisfied. But his interest was not confined to company issues. He and I sat together at dinner one evening after I had worked with a group of high-potential managers in his company. He peppered me with questions, eagerly exploring the implications of a Barack Obama presidency (Obama had just been elected). How was the president-elect being perceived in black communities, relative to white communities? Was there uniform support, or was there friction? How would the president’s race affect his ability to lead globally? After we had talked for an hour, I asked Ames why he was so interested in all this. “I don’t know,” he said. “I just want to learn about this stuff!”

Becoming curious requires a foundation of basic knowledge about a particular difference—what George Loewenstein calls ”seed information”—that captures a person’s attention. Curiosity is difficult to muster without this. Seed information comes from reading books and magazines, attending films or plays, or regularly scanning such sources of information as newsletters or websites. Having a variety of communications media within an organization—newsletters, art exhibits, and so on—can present effective providers of seed information.

This seed information is most effective when it is about some aspect of difference that’s personally and emotionally relevant. As it turned out, Ames had had a series of important professional and personal relationships with African Americans dating back to childhood. Those relationships had been the source of both enjoyment and regrets, feelings that motivated him to want to learn more. Finding these emotional hooks for oneself through reflection and conversation can illuminate a path for stimulating curiosity about difference.

Connect with Leaders from the Margin

Finally, leaders promote the shift to a Leveraging Difference mind-set by building connections with others who are different from themselves. A particularly powerful type of connection is with informal leaders, those who may not be prominent on an organization chart, but who nonetheless influence others. I call these diverse informal leaders “leaders from the margin.”

By virtue of their noncentral position in a team or organization, leaders from the margin cultivate a clear vision of what happens in the mainstream. They observe and reflect deeply on what is going on in the mainstream. They usually have fewer options to act because they have less access to tangible resources, so they learn and generate the resource of knowledge. Moreover, they see the world in a way that most people do not, and that often makes them especially innovative. They are not as restricted in their thinking by conventional rules and norms. They can focus their energies on critical issues that are often overlooked or undervalued by the majority in the center. Their unique perspective is honed by lots of experience studying the dominant leaders and decisionmakers and capitalizing on their blind spots. This makes leaders from the margin among the most valuable catalysts for real change in any organization or society.

These leaders from the margin are invaluable teachers for the mainstream leader. They can help formal leaders see their organizations and their worlds through a different lens. That view supports the shift to a Leveraging Difference mind-set.

The Power of Difference

Leaders committed to sustainable success for their organizations, enterprises, and communities and societies can no longer afford to be dilettantes of difference. The world is more complex, wondrous, and precarious than it has been in recent memory. At the same time, the promise of diversity is more profound than might seem apparent at first. Leaders lay the foundation for sustained excellence when they help create the context for inviting and embracing the contributions that emerge from the intentional melding of diverse perspectives and backgrounds. From this dynamic diversity comes the next great idea, the breakthrough innovation, the community cohesiveness, and the commitment that can make us extraordinary rather than merely ordinary.

Dr. Martin N. Davidson is associate professor of leadership and organizational behavior at the Darden Graduate School of Business, University of Virginia. An internationally known expert on how leaders can use the diversity of their organizations to generate superior business performance, his work appears in top managerial and academic publications including the Harvard Business Review, Administrative Science Quarterly, and the International Journal of Conflict Management. He consults with a host of Fortune 100 firms, government agencies, and nonprofit organizations, and teaches leadership in executive education and MBA programs. Davidson has been featured in numerous media outlets including the New York Times, Businessweek, the Wall Street Journal, and Washington’s “On Leadership” series.

His new book, “The End of Diversity as We Know It: Why Diversity Efforts Fail and How Leveraging Difference Can Succeed,” was released in fall 2011. For more information on Martin N. Davidson and his current and developing work, and to view his weekly blog, “In My Opinion,” visit

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