Workplace Diversity – Embracing our Differences
Everybody’s journey in working life is varied and we each develop a unique skill set. The challenge is to apply these skills to our workplace or role in the most effective way. Often people think that their skill set limits their potential at work but I would argue that “variety is the spice of life” and as such we should be embracing our differences and re-thinking how we apply these to maximise success in the workplace.
Workplace Diversity – what is it and why is it important?
The term “workplace diversity” is commonly associated with the characteristics of the workforce – e.g. gender, cultural background – however, in this context I am referring to skills. To me, workplace diversity means that there is an array of skills on offer that can add value, and having a range of skills to draw upon helps both individuals and organisations to succeed. Thankfully, people are not robots all programmed to do the same tasks in the same way – if they were there would be no space for innovation. Thus, I believe diversity of skills is a key ingredient for success.
Why do we fail?
From a business perspective, it might seem obvious that a diverse workplace brings benefits as this allows for a wide range of skills and knowledge to be pooled, which increases the potential of the organisation/company to succeed. However, there are challenges as diverse people have different ideas about what works and what doesn’t work. This can lead to management being restrictive when choosing new staff only selecting people who will “fit in” rather than choosing people who might bring challenges but whose new skills would also enhance and/or complement the skill base of the existing workforce.
From an individual perspective, it is natural to compartmentalise what we learn according to the specific context in which the learning occurs, and it can be difficult to later apply that knowledge outside of that original context. The challenge is twofold – first we must recognise that the knowledge we have gained is applicable in the new situation, and second we need to recall that knowledge accurately and apply it in an appropriate way.
For example, I was once challenged by a student who could not understand how the case study I had provided for preventing theft in a clothes store could be applied to a retail outlet selling electronic goods. We had a discussion about how to transfer good practice principles (e.g. effective surveillance) rather than specific tactics but he was unfortunately unable or unwilling to grasp the concept. Eventually I developed a new exemplar using an electronic store to demonstrate my point. I realise now that the student just wanted me to provide him with a template that he could apply directly to his individual workplace problem rather than provide the underlying knowledge that would have allowed him to problem solve beyond the immediate theft issue. Whilst the template was good for him in the short term, it left me wondering how long he would survive in the workplace if he was unable to apply good practice principles across different contexts. Maybe it doesn’t matter if he is going to sell electronic goods for the rest of his career but then it seemed a shame to limit his potential.
How do we improve?
From my point of view, one key issue which limits workplace diversity is how teaching is traditionally delivered. We learn by rote from a young age (times tables anyone?) and this approach commonly continues until we are teenagers or even adults (it is not uncommon in adult learning). The problem with this approach is that it teaches us facts rather than concepts, and facts are easily forgotten when they no longer serve a purpose (e.g. after sitting an exam). By failing to demonstrate how facts interact with one another, and how knowledge and skills can be applied to problem solve in the real world, we are missing a great opportunity.
As individuals, there are a number of strategies we can use to help change our mind-set and/or expand our potential. The most obvious one is to think about your own transferable skills and actively try to apply these in a new situation. For example, if you have research skills these can easily be applied across industries. Whilst it is true that the accurate interpretation of results can be heavily dependent on relevant experience, the actual methods for conducting research are applicable across a range of settings.
I also recommend participating in active learning – it is one thing to know how to give a good presentation, it is quite another to actually deliver one. Furthermore, what engages one type of audience will not actively engage another and so it is important to challenge yourself to testing your skills in new contexts.
Don’t be afraid to learn new skills or try out existing ones in new situations. Think about how your skill-set could apply to different trades and industries and be open minded about the types of jobs and roles you apply for. For example, I recently took up a post as a part time Registrar (yes, I will be marrying people!) and I get asked all the time why I applied for the role. Well, aside from the hours suiting my needs, the job specification was looking for someone friendly, accurate, reliable and organised and I thought “I can do that”. Sometimes we are only limited by our own lack of confidence or narrow minded-ness – just because I work primarily in academia doesn’t mean I can’t apply my skills effectively in completely different role.
What if you are the employer / team leader?
It is important that employers as well as employees embrace the concept of workplace diversity for it to work. However, this is not always easy to achieve. For example, we are often drawn to people who are similar to ourselves when we employ new staff or select people for certain roles. This is understandable as it means we are more likely to share ideas and perspectives, minimising the opportunities for arguments. Furthermore, if there is a disagreement we are more likely to understand their point of view. However, this automatically limits the scope for increasing workplace diversity. Not only does this limit the potential of the business to grow but it also reduces the opportunity for staff to learn new skills from the incoming member of the team.
I therefore encourage employers and team leaders to seek diverse skills within their workforce and consider this when employing new staff. Furthermore, don’t be afraid to try and expand the skills of your existing team members, for example, by giving them a new task they have not done before but you are confident they could achieve. Of course, you might need to be prepared for some resistance if they feel the task is outside their remit or they are not confident they can complete it competently. It is important therefore to explain why you are giving them the task (e.g. to expand their skill-set) and reassure them you are confident they can succeed. Provision of adequate support and guidance, of course, is a given in this situation.
Having a diverse range of skills available in the workplace can increase success both on an individual and organisational level. I believe we should all seek opportunities to increase our skills, and actively try to enhance our existing skill-set by applying these in new contexts.
By: Dr Amy Burrell