Inspiring Leadership with Diversity, Inclusion & Cultural Competence

By Leah Smiley

I recently read an article about a college in New York that planned to host a diversity event segregated by race. The Office of Diversity planned one event for students of color only, one event for white students only, and the final event for everyone.

I totally understand why the diversity event was segregated—the Office of Diversity wanted to get specific feedback. But, and there’s a BIG but (no pun intended), you can’t do stuff like that. Yes, there are racial problems on campus. And yes, the President wants you to handle it. But no, you can’t explicitly expose the “elephant” in the middle of the room. Some people may disagree with me, but I’ve learned that there are two types of controversy:  planned and unplanned. In this instance, the unplanned negative controversy caused the Office of Diversity to cancel all three events. And it may ultimately cost this Diversity Officer more than those events.

Yet, this situation illustrates the delicate world of diversity. The Diversity Officer intended to change the campus culture, but the intent did not align with the impact.

In another city, Purdue University’s President, Mitch Daniels, decided to attack “the problem” from a different angle. When Mitch Daniels was Governor of Indiana, he launched a massive campaign to bring foreign businesses to Indiana from emerging (or diverse) markets. He was very successful in helping these foreign companies to establish operations in the state—creating new jobs, a new tax base, and new investment opportunities—but the townspeople, where these companies set-up camp, did not want “foreigners” in their locales. What?? Governor Daniels was confused. The unemployment rate was lower in Indiana and the state economy was doing great, but the residents did not want “outsiders” who had different cultures, languages, and management styles.

So after his tenure as Governor, Mitch Daniels became a college President at one of Indiana’s most prestigious schools. He launched a major initiative that allowed students to get financial assistance for participating in a study abroad program. He correctly reasoned that students exposed to different cultures are more likely to be accepting of diversity in the workplace and in their communities. This is intentional, or planned, positive impact.

The difference between the two schools is that the President led in finding a solution to “the problem” in the second story. Additionally, Daniels is a business man. He had a keen awareness of the “elephant” but did not call it an “elephant” so as not to scare folks. This speaks to our approach in the Office of Diversity. Sometimes we can be more effective if we are not defensive or overly-aggressive about “the problem”. At times, we can be equally effective when we are indirect.

An indirect approach to managing diversity in the workplace may lead to better understanding and teamwork in comparison to head-to-head confrontations. Indirect approaches appeal to a common goal and can help you get the results you want. Some folks expect the Diversity Officer to use the race card or to be politically correct. Don’t do it. For example, instead of calling someone a racist, tell the person that his/her conduct was unprofessional. We’re at work, right? Be professional. Or instead of getting into a heated argument with someone about what should or should not be done, build a business case with his/her supervisor. Come to the table with at least three (3) solutions, alternatives, or possibilities. Now you’re getting to the heart of intentional impact. And now you can build consensus for solving the problem without exposing and alienating the “elephant” that some people unknowingly protect.

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Leah Smiley is the President of the Society for Diversity. For more information about the Society for Diversity, log onto www.societyfordiversity.org.

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