Thinking About
Diversity
of Thought

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Diversity of thought and opinions in the workplace can lead to great innovation and creative ideas, but it can also lead to conflict. What can companies do to encourage this diversity while also resolving inevitable conflict?

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by Andie Burjek

P

eople endure different life experiences, think differently and have different opinions on the same topics. These are generally acknowledged truths, but when a sense of division or conflict springs up between individuals or groups of people based off contrasting beliefs, this diversity of thought can pose a problem for both the people entangled in the conflict and those in charge of resolving it.

Diversity of thought has been a player in the diversity space for a while. It’s not to be confused with diversity of thinking, or cognitive diversity, which is the inclusion of people who have different styles of processing knowledge and solving problems. Diversity of thought, rather, focuses on how people’s cultures, backgrounds, experiences and personalities make them think differently or hold different opinions than others.

Businesses want employees who think differently because they increase creativity and innovation, but some see diversity of thought as a cause of concern. Leaders could potentially promote diversity of thought instead of more traditional forms of diversity as an excuse for people to hire or promote someone who looks exactly like them.

The more voices you have at the table, the better. You want someone to challenge the status quo.”

— Mika Cross, federal workplace expert

“What I worry about sometimes — and I’ve seen this happen — is that people mute the other aspects of diversity by talking about diversity of thought,” said Tanya M. Odom, a global consultant and coach with a strong focus on civil/human rights, diversity, equity and education. Instead, there should be an overall inclusive culture, but this requires certain leadership skills. “What does a leader say in the organization to acknowledge [people’s differences] and yet to set up perimeters and expectations around how we are going to treat each other in the workplace?”

Globally, people are divided on many topics, she added. Dealing with this division means developing a new set of leadership skills to both support diversity of thought and articulate expectations for an inclusive and respectful culture. Many companies are still trying to figure out how to have that dialogue in situations where people don’t agree.

One thing leaders can do is acknowledge that what happens outside of the workplace impacts people inside the workplace, Odom said. For example, she recalled a gay man speaking to her about how he couldn’t focus at work for a few days following the 2016 shooting at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub, in which 49 people were killed. Leaders don’t have to grasp exactly what a person is going through, but they can understand and accept that a person is going through something. These “conversations of understanding,” as Odom calls them, can be valuable for all parties involved.

Odom also suggested that leaders — or anyone wishing to expand their horizons — can increase their realm of understanding by considering where they get their information and by doing research. What accounts do they follow on social media? What books or articles do they read?

“How do I know what other people are thinking if I don’t follow other groups of people or read different content?” she asked.

Many organizations are beginning to shift from thinking of communication as a soft skill to thinking of them as a leadership competency, according to Mika Cross, a federal workplace expert. Recent events have given rise to an interest in gaining cultural awareness, sensitivity training and knowing how to have challenging conversations.

“I’m noticing a trend of organizations focusing on developing more of those kinds of skills and then trying to focus on the kind of culture they want to embrace,” Cross said. “Open and honest conversations are part of the deal.”

A valuable kind of inclusive culture to embrace is one where people feel like they can be heard and take risks, Cross added. “The more voices you have at the table, the better,” she said. “You want someone to challenge the status quo.”

Basic skills here include knowing how to communicate, working in a team and holding each other accountable. These skills can help situations play out in the real world in a positive, collaborative way.

Michelle Birnbaum, a work-life, diversity and inclusion consultant, recalled learning how to navigate a potentially tense situation at a company when they received interest from a group of employees to start a Bible study group.

In this situation, a company can choose to go a couple of different routes, she said. It could decide not to allow any faith-based activities in the workplace. Or more inclusively, it could form a religious club whose goal is to help people understand all religions without proselytizing or recruiting people into a church.

“I find that sometimes if you have multiple offices across the country, you may want to roll something out in one or two offices first before growing something nationally, giving you a chance to see what’s working and where you need to tweak things,” Birnbaum said.

Other best practices of diversity of thought are around having productive, respectful conversations. People should be careful to avoid “spokesperson syndrome,” said Mark Fowler, deputy chief executive officer at Tanenbaum, an organization that promotes mutual respect among religions. Instead, individuals should speak from their own experience, not as a representative from an entire group people. Also, there’s a distinction between the theoretical beliefs of a group and the actions of an individual, he added.

With difficult conversations come the potential for conflict, making conflict resolution another valuable skill. “The ways in which we approach conflict always bear in mind some thought about our own needs and the needs of the person and/or group we find ourselves in conflict with,” Fowler said. People may look at their own needs either as more or less important than the needs of the other person, but conflict resolution in a truly collaborative fashion means that a person is equally concerned with both.

In society today, he added, we’re very quick to stereotype the person we’re in conflict with rather than find out what really interests them. It’s through empathizing with these interests that we can begin to consider why they might think or act the way they do, Fowler said.

It’s because of this that conflict resolution skills are important. We live in a “rapidly shifting society both nationally and globally,” Fowler said. This is a reality we have to deal with and not ignore, he added.

Andie Burjek is a Talent Economy associate editor. To comment, email editor@talenteconomy.io.