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Thinking about Diversity-Related Conflict: Respect, Recognition and Learning

By Susan Woods
Managing Partner, Henderson Woods LLC


In the workplace, the keys to making diversity work lie in relationship and learning from difference. Diversity practitioners realize that we each interpret the world through the lens of our own diversity and experience.

Diversity of thought and experience lie at the heart of the value proposition of diversity ? and also pose one of the greatest challenges. The greater the diversity of the workforce, the greater the potential for
misunderstanding and conflict. This working paper, written from a practitioner’s perspective, considers underlying issues in diversity-related conflict and misunderstanding to explore how dynamics of 1) respect and disrespect, 2) identity and recognition, and 3) resentment and backlash interfere with relationship and learning.

A colleague of mine who specializes in organizational change likes to ask the question: “Why can’t we just announce change and make it happen?” A similar question can be posed for workplace diversity: “Why can’t we just promote a diverse workplace and have people get along?

We know that greater diversity in the workplace increases the risk of misunderstanding and conflict. Even without malicious intent, conflict can arise in situations where an action carries different meanings when interpreted through diverse experience. The stage is set for misunderstanding, mistrust, tension, and conflict. We also know that diffusing tension to move toward resolution must be a participative process that engages those in conflict.

Increasingly, diversity change leadership recognizes the critical importance of promoting a workplace culture with shared expectations around collaborative conflict resolution. None-the-less, diversity-related conflict remains one of the most confusing and volatile dynamics in a diverse workplace.

We live in a world that is neither bias-free nor equitable, where power is imbalanced, stereotypes prevail – consciously and unconsciously. Too often, we identify others as being “one of us” or “one of them.” Each of us brings life perspectives with us
into the workplace, perspectives rooted in both personal and group identity – our diversity lens. Experience with disrespect, insult, unfair treatment and injustice depends, in part, on our race, gender, religion, economic power, education, immigration status ? and the list goes on. While the outright discrimination of the past is generally condemned, it resurfaces in confusing and indirect sentiments about worthiness, advantage or the pace of change – too fast, too slow. The irony is that diversity of experience and thought, a major component in the value
proposition for diversity, is also one of diversity’s biggest challenges.

I heard an excellent illustration of these dynamics listening to NPR’s Talk of the Nation. [1] On the August 5, 2010 program, How Have Discussions about Race Changed?, a caller, a white woman who delivers pizza in a diverse neighborhood, commented that her African American customers hardly ever tip her and she felt that was because of her race. Leonard Pitts, the invited guest and syndicated columnist with the Miami Herald, an African American, acknowledged the possibility of reverse racism and suggested the difference lies in the impact the experience of racism on has on “the quality of [one’s] life in the larger scale.” READ REST OF ARTICLE

2010



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"Diversity is more than simply demographics. It's also about the perspectives we each bring to the table through our unique experiences. Any truly successful organization values diversity, promotes inclusiveness and appreciates the benefits diversity brings to strengthening a community."

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Chairman, Nixon Peabody LLP

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