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Business and Finance

Six ways to embrace difference in the workplace

Dara Blumenthal
Difference isn’t just a quantitative issue, it's qualitative - so let's go beyond box ticking on diversity and actively engage with other people's perspectives

Quantum physicist and feminist philosopher Karen Barad asks “What if we were to recognise that differentiating is […] not about radical separation, but on the contrary, about making connections and commitments?”

I like to apply the idea that difference has the potential to connect us in ways that we’re not currently benefitting from to everyday relationships. Part of this means moving away from an understanding of diversity as box-ticking and quota counting that’s prevalent in today’s discussion of gender, race, and equality. Take Sheryl Sandberg, for example: a prominent female corporate voice who consistently engages in conversations around diversity statistics – yet doesn’t offer any way for change. Instead, she touts self-sufficiency for women, and finds mentorship a buzz kill.

Creating quotas or openly publishing diversity numbers creates an awareness of representational issues. But while statistics might show us that change needs to happen – that things are quantitatively unfair – they don’t build a true understanding of the individual production and experience of discrimination. It should be about real, material, ethical engagement with other people. It’s about connecting and using difference to become better, more creative and more resilient.  

Beyond quotas

The existence of diversity, inclusion and non-discrimination practices suggest we’re making progress in society, but I think we can do better. In the contemporary West, we still live in a systemically racist society where the fundamental frameworks of sameness derive from the straight white male ideal. What if we didn’t just try to manage or empower diversity against these dominant norms, but embraced other perspectives for ourselves?

I’m attempting to answer this through Generative Differencea practice derived from my recent academic work which seeks out a diversity of outlooks and life experiences that positively shape our ways of working, thinking, and interacting.

One way of doing this is learning how to listen and be receptive to stories that don’t match your own, and using them to create more space for shared experiences. In many ways it’s a form of radical engagement. My friend Niegel Smith recently wrote about another form of radical engagement:

“I’ve been thinking a lot the last several years about how we approach other folks…I wondered what it would be like if we all approached strangers with love and curiosity instead of fear. These thoughts have extended through countless tragedies that I read about in my newsfeed and experience on the streets of New York. And, I know my perspective is unique as someone who lives and thinks from the fringe as a queer, black person…Radical engagement feels like something my dad tried to teach me as a kid, and is actually extremely difficult to live out moment to moment.”

The workplace is a great place to begin practicing Generative Difference. Here are some things you can try over the next couple of weeks:

  1. Have lunch with someone new or someone you don’t regularly communicate with and try to get to know something about their life and what they’re passionate about. Go into it with the express intention of listening and learning.
  2. Intentionally diversify your media and seek out voices from underrepresented communities and populations.
  3. Identify a mundane daily habit and choose to change part of it. It could be as small as drinking a cup of tea instead of coffee.
  4. Take note of your language. Do you gender things or groups of people in unnecessary ways? For example, do you address groups of people as ‘Hey guys!’ when people of various genders are present?
  5. When you hear someone say something offensive or discriminatory, give feedback in private instead of in the moment in front of other people.
  6. Take a walk around your office and consider how people of different identities experience the space. Does anything stand out?

Those who have been marked as ‘different’ have a lot to teach on this subject and those who haven’t have a great deal to learn. By listening and learning we can have fuller and richer relationships, better innovation, and happier daily lives.

Dara Blumenthal is a practicing social scientist and critical theorist working on strategy and culture at Undercurrent. @thisisdara. Image credit: CC Markus Spiske

Take Sheryl Sandberg, for example: a prominent female corporate voice who consistently engages in conversations around diversity statistics - yet doesn’t offer any way for change



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