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The Diversity Challenge– Character and Culture

The character of U.S. culture has received much attention from historians, sociologists, and other scholars. Characteristics originally identified by anthropologists have been confirmed by large-scale empirical and cross-cultural studies. The U.S. mainstream culture is consistently described as being individualistic, egalitarian, pragmatic, hardworking, action-oriented, data-based, and amenable to change.1

If there is one additional word that characterizes America’s culture, that word is diversity. People of Hispanic, African, and Asian heritage now constitute at least 35 percent of all new workers, and half of all new employees are women. Today, nearly one in six American workers is foreign-born.

How does diversity affect you? You may have to deal with foreign customers and suppliers. You may work for a foreign firm in the United States. You may be assigned to work abroad full-time or on temporary projects. You are almost certain to have co-workers from diverse backgrounds.2

Dealing with diversity effectively means behaving in a way that creates trust and respect among people and that gains benefit from their differences. An analogy makes the point: If you were planting a garden and wanted to have a variety of flowers, you would never think of giving every flower the same amount of sun, the same amount of water, and the same type of soil. Instead, you would cultivate each flower according to its needs. Neither the rose nor the orchid is more or less valuable because it requires unique treatment.3

Leaders of diverse workgroups may wonder, How can I possibly learn about all these people? The answer is that although you can't learn all there is to know about every culture, the more you know, the more successful you will be. In addition, people will appreciate your efforts.

Diversity Prescription

Today, diversity refers to more than race, religion, gender, and ethnicity. It is a broad term that encompasses many differences, including age, disability status, military experience, sexual orientation, economic class, educational level, personality characteristics, and lifestyle. In the enlightened workplace, there is a philosophy of pluralism and a relentless effort to eliminate racism, sexism, ageism, and other discriminations. Where this occurs, all people have reason to believe that they are accepted and respected and that their voices will be heard. The prescription is to turn walls in our minds and hearts into bridges that join and make a structure that is stronger than its individual cells. The prescription is to value diversity as a strength. To that end, remember the following:

  • All people should be treated with respect and dignity -- we must have an eyes-level approach rather than an eyes-up or eyes-down approach in our dealings with people, regardless of social status.
  • Every person should model and reinforce an essentially democratic character and humanistic approach to life.
  • Valuing diversity provides strength and a positive advantage for organizations operating in multicultural environments. Far from being a stumbling block, diversity in the workplace can be a springboard for opportunity and excellence.4

Diversity Strategies and Techniques

The following are strategies and techniques that can help individuals and organizations manage diversity effectively. Also included are hindrance habits that should be avoided by both individuals and organizations.5

What Individuals Can Do

  • Connect with and value your own culture. Assess how your background translates into your own lifestyle, values, and views.
  • Think about how it feels to be different by remembering times when you felt that you were in the minority. Examine how you felt and the impact on your behavior.
  • Try to understand each person as an individual, rather than seeing the person as a representative of a group.
  • Participate in educational programs that focus on learning about and valuing different cultures, races, religions, ethnic backgrounds, and political ideologies.
  • Make a list of your heroes in music, sports, theater, politics, business, science, and so forth. Examine your list for its diversity.
  • Learn about the contributions of older people and people with visual, hearing, or other impairments. Consider how their contributions have helped us all.
  • Learn about other cultures and their values through travel, books, and films, and by attending local cultural events and celebrations.
  • Continually examine your thoughts and language for unexamined assumptions and stereotypical responses.
  • Include people who are different from you in social conversations, and invite them to be part of informal work-related activities, such as going to lunch or attending company social events.
  • When dealing with people, try to keep in mind how you would feel if your positions were reversed.

What Organizations Can Do

  • Include employees from a variety of backgrounds in decision-making and problem-solving processes. Use differences as a way of gaining a broader range of ideas and perspectives.
  • Use targeted recruiting. Develop strategies to increase the flow of applicants from a variety of backgrounds. For example, if you commonly recruit students from college campuses, ensure that the student populations represent a diversity of backgrounds.
  • Look for opportunities to develop employees from diverse backgrounds and prepare them for positions of responsibility. Tell them about the options in their present careers, as well as other career opportunities within the organization.
  • Show sensitivity in the physical work environment. Display artwork and literature representing a variety of cultures, and make structural changes to ensure accessibility.
  • Form a group to address issues of diversity. Invite members who represent a variety of backgrounds. Develop a Diversity Credo for the organization.
  • Implement voluntary training programs that focus on diversity in the workplace -- programs designed to develop a greater awareness of and respect for differences.
  • Pay attention to company publications such as employee newsletters. Do they reflect the diversity of ideas, cultures, and perspectives present in the organization?
  • Evaluate official rules, policies, and procedures of the organization to be sure all employees are treated fairly.
  • Develop voluntary mentoring and partnering programs that cross traditional social and cultural boundaries.
  • Talk openly about diversity issues, respect all points of view, and work cooperatively to solve problems.

Hindrance Habits

To unfreeze attitudes, individuals and organizations must avoid five hindrance habits: the "die-casting" habit -- sorting people into types or forcing them into imaginary molds set up in our own minds; the "just like" habit -- noting traits that are obviously similar between people and ignoring different ones; the "go or no-go" habit -- classifying people as either all one way or all another way with no provision for in-between; the "rigid" habit -- dealing with people and situations in certain set manners with no flexibility allowed for circumstances or individual needs; and the "standardization" habit -- recognizing that all people have many common characteristics but failing to appreciate that each also has special interests, aptitudes, and needs.

Leadership, Diversity, and Example

Leadership plays a pivotal role in dealing with diversity. It helps to cite a success story about leadership, diversity, and personal courage. There is none better than the case of a visionary priest who recruited 20 black athletes to the white and insular College of the Holy Cross in 1968. Reverend John Brooks changed their lives, the future of the college, and the course of history. In Fraternity, Diane Brady tells the four-year, blow-by-blow experiences of these young African American high school students who were plucked unexpectedly from East Coast cities and dropped without warning into a social setting and college environment none could have imagined. The stories of the 20, including future Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and future Pulitzer Prize recipient Edward P. Jones, are testimony to the power of education and a compelling argument for the difference a leader can make in the lives of others.6

The effective leader has an integrative approach. This involves bringing together people of different cultures, races, genders, personalities, and stages of development and integrating them into a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. This integration is not simply a melting-down process; rather, it is a building up in which the identity of the individual is preserved yet simultaneously transcended. The effective team that results does not eliminate diversity. Instead, it welcomes other points of view, embraces opposites, and seeks to understand all sides of every issue.

As important as leadership is, in the final analysis, it falls on each person to do the right thing. In The Measure of Our Success, Marian Wright Edelman writes:

Remember that the fellowship of human beings is more important than the fellowship of race and class and gender. Be decent and fair and insist that others be so in your presence. Don't tell, laugh at, or in any way acquiesce to racial, ethnic, religious, or gender jokes, or to any practices intended to demean rather than enhance another human being. Walk away from them; stare them down; make them unacceptable. Through daily moral consciousness, face up to rather than ignore voices of division. Remember that we are not all equally guilty, but we are all equally responsible for building a decent and just society.7


  1. G. Hofstede, Culture’s Consequences (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2003); R. House et al., "Understanding Cultures and Implicit Leadership Theories across the Globe," Journal of World Business 37 (2002), pp. 3-10; and G. Kirkman et al., "A Quarter Century of Culture's Consequences," Journal of International Business Studies 37 (2006), pp. 285-320.
  2. R. Kanter, "Leadership in a Globalizing World," in N. Nohria and R. Khurana, eds., Handbook of Leadership Theory and Practice (Boston: Harvard Business Press, 2010); R. Thomas, Jr. and M. Woodruff, Building a House for Diversity (New York: AMACOM, 2003); and R. House and M. Javidan, "Overview of GLOBE," in R. House et al., eds., Culture, Leadership, and Organizations (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2004), 9-28.
  3. M. Barak, Managing Diversity, 3rd ed. (New York: Sage, 2013); and D. Matsumoto, APA Handbook of Intercultural Communication (Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2010).
  4. B. Ferdman and B. Deane, Diversity at Work (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2013); J. Walter, "Managing Differences," Great American Insurance Group (2010); C. Kulik and L. Roberson, Diversity at Work (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008); and S. Horwitz and I. Horwitz, “The Effects of Team Diversity on Team Outcomes,” Journal of Management 33 (2009), pp. 987-1015.
  5. S. Thiederman, Making Diversity Work (New York: Kaplan Business Center, 2008); R. Thomas, Building on the Promise of Diversity (New York: AMACOM, 2005); T. Bateman and S. Snell, Management, 12th ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill/Irwin, 2016), pp. 407-09; F. Dobbin and A. Kaler, "Designing a Bias-Free Organization," Harvard Business Review (July-August, 2016); S. Gupta, "Mine the Potential of Multi-Cultural Teams," HR (October 2008), pp. 79-84; Diversity Council, Human Relations Credo, Department of Human Services, Hamilton Country, Ohio (1998); L. Gardenswartz and A. Rowe, Layers of Diversity (Alexandria, VA: Society for Human Resource Management, 2003); and L. Gardenswartz, Managing Diversity (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1998).
  6. D. Brady, Fraternity (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2012).
  7. M. Edelman, The Measure of Our Success (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993).

About the Author

George Manning is a professor emeritus of psychology at Northern Kentucky Univer­sity. He is a consultant to business, industry, and government, serving such clients as the AMA, AT&T, General Electric, IBM, Duke Energy, the United Auto Workers, Young Presidents’ Organization, the U.S. Navy, and the National Institutes of Health. He lectures on economic and social issues, including quality of work-life, workforce values, and business ethics. He maintains an active program of research and writing in organizational psychology. His current studies and interests include the changing meaning of work, leadership ethics, and coping skills for personal and social change.

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