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The issue of diversity in the workplace has always been a fraught and sensitive subject. Most people understand the need for (and power of) diversity, but are uncomfortable discussing it. Thus, the only diversity found in many organizations is shallow and reflects external characteristics.
For many in leadership and human resource roles, diversity is a topic that must be talked about, but is usually very difficult. Implementing diversity in an organization can be a powerful motivator if approached with an open mind, or an equally powerful bomb if approached with the normal human tendencies. However, the reality is that the conversation about diversity is almost nonexistent; for instance, notice the response to former-Googler James Damore’s internal Google memo for suggesting that individuals might be more than the sum of their sex and race.
The reality of the makeup of our psyches is that people are more comfortable around people who are similar to themselves and more likely to negatively judge those who are different. This is an unconscious bias that is rooted in the natural troop/tribal mentality of our species. The historical division of peoples in this country and around the world is evolving, but not always for the better. Humans are primarily visual creatures. This results in the most obvious forms of discrimination being based on characteristics that are immediately apparent to the observer; namely race, sex and potential physical handicaps. Most people are uncomfortable with introspection, so these subconscious judgements often become so embedded that they are treated as incontrovertible facts. In the most extreme cases, this “othering” can even result in people being dehumanized. The bottom line is that we are very susceptible not only to our individual life experiences and our interpretation of those events, but also to the evolution that has resulted in these behaviors.
This is where diversity really becomes complicated. Race and gender obviously define each person's core identity, but so do ethnicity; culture; economic standing; regional, educational and political backgrounds; and even appearance and speech patterns. Most people want to focus on obvious features, but similarities in these imperceptible characteristics will frequently be more important as similarities to draw people together than the obvious differences will drive them apart.
Rhetoric and Influence
Overcoming our innate prejudices and recognizing the depths of diversity are critical to fully understanding people and developing psychological tactics to effectively influence people (classical understanding of “rhetoric”). Such tactics can be used in either a positive, or negative manner.
As an up-and-coming labor leader, I was asked many times if I was a follower of the psychology of “Mao Zedong Thought” (from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung). Labor leaders frequently idealize Maoism/Marxism-Leninism-Maoism due to their shallow understanding of how his tactics lead China into Communism in 1949. Their admiration of Chairman Mao’s writings was reflected by their misconception that the masses voluntarily followed into communism and their complete lack of understanding of the price that Mao extracted from the masses that he claimed to protect and elevate.
It is critical to note that Mao’s campaign (the “Great Leap Forward”) to change China from an agrarian to industrial economy caused tens of millions of deaths, most due to starvation. As with all such collectivist actions, these costs were excused on the theory that the ends (results) justify the means. Mao firmly believed that he could lead people to overcome their societal heritage and even nature itself.
Natural science is one of man’s weapons in his fight for freedom. For the purpose of attaining freedom in society, man must use social sciences to understand and change society and carry out social revolution. For the purpose of attaining freedom in the world of nature, man must use natural science to understand, conquer and change nature and thus attain freedom from nature.
Speech at the inaugural meeting of the Natural Science Research Society of the Border Region (February 5, 1940)
Mao also understood that identity and diversity is greater than external characteristics and took a negative approach to persuasion. Throughout his Great Leap Forward, which banished all religious and mystics institutions and observances in favor of political meetings and propaganda sessions, and forward through the Cultural Revolution, which uprooted the educated classes and “bourgeois elements” and stripped them of their family heritage, Mao consistently stamped out diversity to replace it with uniformity. He understood that in order to convince people to do things that were clearly against their interests, he would need to eliminate traditions and enforce conformity through his rhetoric.
Where do correct ideas come from? Do they drop from the skies? No. Are they innate in the mind? No. They come from social practice, and from it alone; they come from three kinds of social practice, the struggle for production, the class struggle and scientific experiment.
Where Do Correct Ideas Come From? (May 1963), 1st pocket ed., p. 1.
It is man’s social being that determines his thinking. Once the correct ideas characteristic of the advanced class are grasped by the masses, these ideas turn into a material force which changes society and changes the world.
As a national union organizing Director, I utilized the negative forms of persuasion espoused by Mao to turn workers against their employers. I was aggressive and must admit that I, too, justified my actions by the results; but that is only half of the story. The other side of the story is that I understood the positive side of persuasion. This key to my success in organizing is the very reason that I am even more successful working with management now.
My secret was that I understood that, in order to effectively persuade any group of people to support trade unionism you need to combine the negative fear- and hate-mongering techniques of Mao with the positive techniques best described by Mahatma Gandhi:
Relationships are based on four principals: respect, understanding, acceptance and appreciation.
Power is of two kinds. One is obtained by the fear of punishment and the other by acts of love. Power based on love is a thousand times more effective and permanent that the one derived from fear of punishment.
My success as a union official, whether it was working on organizing workers into the union, strikes, or control of the members’ behavior in any situation, was always based on manipulation in one form or another. Understanding what truly defines the individual was paramount to shepherding them to taking the actions I wanted them to.
Influencing Workers to Victory
Knowing the audience was the cornerstone of my successful campaign tactics. From the first meeting with potential new members, we created a psychological profile of the unit. This profile went far beyond the issues at the workplace. We recorded demographics, of course, but we also recorded their culture, their areas of birth and origin, the years they lived in the regions, direct family history (both culturally and economically), and any hobbies. I understood that diverse connections crisscross in unconventional patterns outside the norms of the typical conception of diversity. The more information that we had on everyone, the better we could exploit those links.
We used all the information we gathered to highlight our communication in such a way that we would gain the confidence and support of the workers. We customized the message and information to fit each group based on all the data we gathered, not just the basics norms, as people always fall into multiple groups.
My understanding of what motivated my subjects was what made me so very successful in my labor career, but I was often helped by the mistakes of the employer. Frequently, victory had nothing to do with how smart I was; victory was assured by simply arranging my teams to take advantage of target management team’s errors.
Common Employer Mistake
Many companies make the amateur mistake of thinking that they can address the complexity of diversity by hiring or promoting someone based solely on race, gender, religion or age without guaranteeing that the person had the proper management skills of problem resolution. Attempting to “connect” with or "motivate" employees through demographics matching frequently leads to greater problems.
If someone in management with the same base demographics as their subordinates mistreats an employee, it will result not only in a profound dislike of the manager, but will also trigger a sense of betrayal. We exploited this emotional trigger for action against the perceived offense for our own purposes when I worked for the union.
Emotions are frequently not based on fact, instead they are based on perception. People make decisions based on their perceptions of how they are treated; everyone wants to be respected and have their opinions heard. The most important aspect of our job as organizers was to listen to the employees and use their emotions as a hammer against the employer.
Now that I work with management, I guide clients away from such superficial mistakes. Instead, we focus on ensuring that they have a diverse workforce and that they are putting the best fit candidates into positions of leadership.
Power of Inclusiveness
I have learned that the power emotion for everyone, including potential union members, is fair treatment. This was the carrot that I used, whether it was herding workers into union membership, walking out on strike, or simply ensuring loyalty to the cause. Being treated fairly and received with sincerity are core human needs that every one of us strive for, and the absence of which will result in contempt for the perpetrator.
Understanding diversity in the truest sense, and acting positively on it, creates an atmosphere of inclusiveness and is one of the strongest forces in bringing (and keeping) diverse groups together. Further study of Gandhi and other positive minded leaders helped inspire me to realize the errors of my ways and assisted me turning from my aggressive pro-union path to support ALL members of organizations:
Our ability to reach unity in diversity will be the beauty and the test of our civilization.
A thousand candles can be lighted from the flame of one candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness can be spread without diminishing that of yourself.
It’s the action, not the fruit of the action, that’s important. You have to do the right thing. It may not be in your power, may not be in your time, that there’ll be any fruit. But that doesn’t mean you stop doing the right thing. You may never know what results from your action. But if you do nothing, there will be no result.
The manipulation of people in a positive manner creates a harmonic inclusiveness, while the negative forms of manipulation can only result in the antagonisms that I exploited as a union official against management to advance my career. But, what does this mean for you as an employer or human resources professional?
Whether you have a union or not, there is a powerful message contained in these truths. Diversity is so much more than simply being “multi-cultural”. It goes much deeper. It means understanding your employees’ backgrounds and having the right mix of employees who are willing to work together to advance the organization. If you then combine this diversity with positive rhetorical tactics, you will create a strong, loyal workforce that is more productive and will strive to accomplish your organization’s mission and achieve its vision.
There are many studies out there demonstrating that a diverse workforce increases productivity and job satisfaction. It is critical to not be concerned with the small fraction of the world that promotes hate, but instead to focus on the major who appreciate learning about other cultures, understanding other races and religions, and finding cooperative solutions to problems. True diversity results in a multitude of viewpoints contributing to solving every challenge, especially when combined with positive manipulation techniques that result in a truly empowered workforce.