The Dirty Secret Of Workplace Diversity

Workplace Diversity

Intellectually, it’s easy for us to promote the value of diversity in our organizations. We can endlessly proclaim epithets about the added benefit of a diverse and varied constituency of employees, espousing the importance of mixing genders, races, generations, and lifestyles.

In our heads, we “get it,” and for good reason—it seems almost self-evident that a variety of perspectives would make our collective decisions better, faster, stronger.

In practice, however, leveraging the obvious benefits of diversity is, well… really freaking hard. We “understand” how important it is, but as I’ve experienced firsthand, many (if not most) organizations aren’t truly capitalizing on their diverse workforce as expertly or powerfully as they’d like to be.

Why is this the case?

Why is it so much more difficult for us to capitalize on diversity than it is for us to understand why it’s crucial?

The dirty secret of diversity is that the problem starts with us, not “them.”

It turns out that leveraging diversity isn’t really about all the “different people” around you as much as it’s about you—and the way you see those people.

Leveraging the obvious benefits of diversity is, well… really freaking hard.

Whether we realize it or not, we define ourselves as “normal.”

Before you scoff (“There’s nothing ‘normal’ about my crazy life!”), consider this: our default state is to think other people like what we like, and further, that they ought to like what we like. We do the same with things we don’t like.

For example, if we love strategy or details or collaborating or ____________ (fill in the blank), we think other people must love those things, too.

If we hate spreadsheets or sitting in meetings or filling out forms or ____________ (fill in the blank), our default state is to think other people must hate those things, too.

The problem is both of those statements are total lies.

There are people who unequivocally love to do the same exact things you hate to do.

There are people who completely abhor the things you’d enjoy doing all day, every day.

Until we get past the lie that other people are energized or drained by the same things we are, we can’t truly leverage diversity because deep down, we don’t really appreciate it. It’s hard to accept that others may truly enjoy an activity that we’d rather take a fork in the eye, than do ourselves.

It’s much easier to see the world as if everyone else is looking through the same “lenses” we are. In fact, statements from this (mistaken) worldview spill out of our lips on a regular basis. “If other people would just call me back at the precise moment they said they would…!” “If other people would just think through their decisions…!” “If other people would not be so mired in the details…!” “If other people just knew how to merge onto the freeway like I do…!”

I hate to break it to us all, but it’s the same stuff that drives us crazy that also enables us to leverage diversity. And that’s why diversity is so damn difficult: to take advantage of it, we have to somehow find a way to get outside of our own “filter.”

Until we get past the lie that other people are energized or drained by the same things we are, we can’t truly leverage diversity…

Here are three suggestions for how to get started:

1)  Our understanding of ‘diversity’ has to go deeper.

The magic of diversity is unlocked in an organization when we can get past “surface” features that look like diversity, and start to embrace the completely fingerprint-like distinctiveness that is a person’s strengths. People who look very different on the outside might have very similar activities that energize them. Find a way to unleash the uniqueness underneath.

2)  We must embrace our own genius.

Each one of us has a completely unique set of strengths/talents/gifts/energizers (whatever word you prefer). In order to appreciate the strengths/talents/gifts/energizers of other people, however, we must first be crystal clear about what value we bring to the team. We can’t appreciate the differing perspectives of others if we constantly feel threatened or insecure about our own viewpoint.

3)  We have to get exponentially better at being vulnerable.

There’s no way around it; leveraging diversity really is hard. It involves deliberately overriding the “I am normal bias” we have in our brains, and forcing ourselves to see the world from a perspective that isn’t natural, comfortable, and sometimes might even seem ridiculous to us. However we get there, though, without an authentic willingness to try on somebody else’s viewpoint our efforts to leverage the amazing power of diversity will continue to fall flat.


Continue reading our New Leadership series with 3 Leadership Lessons We Can Learn from Gen Y



Art by: TheGrayson

Josh Allan Dykstra is a recognized thought leader on the future of work and company culture design. His articles and ideas have been featured by Fast Company, Forbes, Business Insider,, and Under30CEO. He is a co-founder of The Work Revolution, a movement + campaign that advocates for life-giving work environments and a co-founder of Strengths Doctors, a consulting firm that helps leaders and entrepreneurs design energizing places to work. Josh's eclectic background includes projects with organizations like Apple, Sony, Genentech, HTC, Starbucks, UCLA and Viacom/CBS as well as startups, nonprofits, and universities. He holds an MBA in Executive Leadership from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and his new book, Igniting the Invisible Tribe: Designing An Organization That Doesn’t Suck, is available on Connect with him online at

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  • Thank you Josh for this great Post!
    Kindly, let me tell you a little story: in 1989-1990 I was doing my MS degree in London. We were 30 in the class coming from almost 30 different countries. Although we had similar educational background, but our skills were totally different due to the different universities/ countries we were coming from. In fact, some were good in Maths, others in hardware, others in software, others were excellent communicators, etc.
    Could you imagine if we were all hired to the same company what we could have achieved? We managed to sit down in the same class/ lab for a whole year without any problem, why can’t we all work together at the same organization in spite of our differences?
    I believe it all has to do with the working environment. We all felt equal in that class because we are all there to learn. Interaction between us was necessary in order to succeed.
    By the way, I’ve never felt as a “foreigner” at my university (I’ve spent almost 7 years in London for an MS & PhD & RA), but I have always felt as a misfit whenever I had a meeting in a company even when I was sitting with my peers.

  • geofflivingston

    Great point, the change does begin with me. And I have to be willing to give people a fair chance and embrace them for their strengths and weaknesses, rather than my perceived views of them.

  • Great point Josh. But the blame goes to management’s use of command and control which by its very nature tends to demotivate, demean, and disrespect its workforce. In such an environment, employees are led, really “led” to treat their work, their customers, each other and their bosses with disrespect. If management uses the opposite approach, let’s call it autonomy and support, which treats all employees with great respect, employees are “led” to treat each other, their work, their customers, and their bosses with great respect thus celebrating diversity. It is all about leadership since 90%+ of all people are conformists/followers. Sadly, some form of command and control is used in the vast majority of workplaces.

  • This is a GREAT post and I applaud you for tackling the issue. A lot of people will accuse people in my community as playing the race card in situations but even using the phrase “race card” is offensive as it implies that what we live through is a game. It’s not, it’s life.

    Diversity in the workplace DOES add so many different issues to the already tough subject of management in the workplace. So in addition to dealing with some that may or may not be qualified to be at the management level, organizations have to deal with personal bias. This can be tough because it’s really hard to deal with personal bias AND tackle the complicated job of managing people which can be tough in general. It essentially adds another layer to an already tough situation of managing people and personalities.

    I agree, we MUST embrace differences because different people from diverse background could possibly bring a different perspective to the table in any organization. This will involve people moving beyond their preconceptions and this, on a human level may be challenging.

    I think as we become a more global world, through online and other interactions embracing diversity or opening our minds to others that are different will become less complicated and easier to embrace.

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