Can Leaders Embrace Diversity Beyond The Numbers?

In our time of heightened racial division, we need leaders who can trailblaze new paths and cultivate environments that emphasize our similarities rather than our differences.

As the old saying goes, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” America’s metrics-driven diversity framework has not changed for decades, and, if anything, our racial divide seems to have widened. The well-intentioned race-based diversity mandates have conditioned us to see people as labels. When we see a person as a label, we create separation–a sense of “us” vs. “them”; however, when we meet the individual behind the label, we open space for human connection.

Since I came to America some 50 years ago, I’ve primarily been viewed as a label: an Asian American woman, an Asian minority, a Korean immigrant, and many more. Just like everyone else on this planet, I am far more than my skin color or race. Being labeled made me feel constricted, alienated, and not equal. When I encountered people who interacted with me as a unique human being, I felt an instant connection with that person. In the workplace, these human connections are the driving force in cultivating a cohesive team in the pursuit of collective goals. On the other hand, a pervasive labeling culture inserts wedges that only serve to divide people.

Diversity is a mindset, not a formula. Government enforcements have led people to link diversity programs to labels and quotas, which often end up creating more division. Organizations can achieve both—fulfill diversity mandates while fostering human connection—but must recognize that it’s the willful actions of people, not enforcement measures, that drive successful diversity efforts.

Here are three key reflections that will provide a broad leadership landscape of where you are, where your organization is, and how you may move forward.

1. The most compelling force for success is your employees’ sense of belonging. The more they feel as though they belong, the fuller their engagement will be. Do you feel you have a good grasp of how your employees feel about the diversity practiced in their current work life, and what their unspoken feelings, resentments, and needs are? Numbers do not explain the human dynamics that lie beneath the surface; it’s intangible human elements that ultimately drive your tangible bottom-line results.

Your employees’ feelings, mindsets, and behaviors shape the diversity climate of your organization. Do you believe that each of your employees feel that they matter equally, that they can voice without fear, and that they feel they belong? What’s your take on your organizational diversity atmosphere: Is it an “obligatory” enforcment or a “voluntary” desire from within? The chasm between the two mindsets is immense.

2. Many current strategies fall short because they focus too much on statistical metrics while failing to foster core human connections. While no two people experience the same life, regardless of who we are or where we come from, we all share a universal human essence. Having lived and worked in different parts of the world, I’ve learned that human connection is the foundation for healthy diversity. Through our shared humanity, we can build harmonious acceptance that transcends external differences. Diversity policies and programs that embrace this human element will shift the diversity paradigm to a place that nurtures voluntary inclusiveness.

Do you believe your diversity philosophy and programs promote an environment where your employees are encouraged to see past their colleagues’ differences and foster genuine human connection? Is your organizational diversity mindset focused on accentuating the differences of people? When we focus on our differences, rather than our similarities, we create division. When we embrace our similarities, we create connection. What leadership actions will be required to reduce division and increase connection?

3. Leaders have privilege and accountability in shaping their organizations’ diversity framework and outcomes. The mindset and actions of leaders directly influence and condition work environments. Leaders can lead to a place where every employee feels a sense of belonging in a collaborative and open atmosphere, or one that is filled with enforcement, tension, fear, and distrust. It’s up to leaders to examine their awareness of how they lead, and the basis for their motivations and agendas.

How often do you reflect on the impact of your mindset and behavior on your own well-being as well as of those you lead? What methods do you use to gauge the health of your organization’s diversity? When you hire or promote executives or board members, are you hiring the most capable individual or filling out a quota? Your actions will disseminate your diversity message loudly, the person you hire will acutely feel it, and you will create differing human and professional relations. Do you own the responsibility for making personal changes and broadening your own lens? What will prepare you to make bold—and not necessarily popular—decisions?

Soo Bong Peer
Soo Bong Peer, a strategy consultant and executive coach to Fortune 500 multinational corporations, is the author of the new book “The Essential Diversity Mindset.” Soo comes from a multicultural upbringing with more than 30 years of experience in strategic marketing, global branding, business development, international joint ventures, and leadership development.