A different thought on diversity

MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. -- Have you ever had one of those moments where you're sitting in a staff meeting, someone throws out a seemingly good idea, and all the heads around the room nod in agreement, even though you're certain not everyone is fully on board?  Or, have you ever been a part of a hand-picked team of like-minded individuals, put together for a special project because you all "get" the boss's vision?

On the surface these scenarios may seem harmless, but both of these situations can be big problems for organizations and are common symptoms of organizations that don't truly embrace diversity. Yes, I said it, the "D" word. It's up to organizational leadership to set an environment that embraces true diversity, but it may be harder than you think.

You see, diversity goes beyond simply ensuring all cultures, nationalities, sexual orientations, and religious views are represented in an organization. True diversity seeks to ensure a diverse set of ideas and perspectives are represented at all levels of an organization--from the front line Airman all the way up to senior decision makers. The organization can have a perfectly representative balance of minorities and religious views, but if everyone making decisions is always in agreement, you don't really have diversity--you have a problem.

I believe this is especially challenging in military organizations simply because our rank carries so much weight over subordinates. It's sometimes difficult to get a junior member to speak up in disagreement out of fear it may impact their career or performance report. Or, even worse, there are leaders that don't want to be challenged and instead rule with an iron fist. Granted, there are times when events don't allow for much debate or disagreement, but when they do it's important for leaders to seek it. The absence of diversity in thought drives organizations toward group think, complacency and inefficiency. These scenarios can be toxic to organizations and damaging to the development of our future leaders.

To avoid these pitfalls and help improve the quality of thought in your organization, while embracing a culture of diversity, consider the following advice for leaders.

Ensure someone always disagrees with you. It's too easy to get caught up in the quiet satisfaction of being told "you're right" by your team. But, if you look around the table and everyone on your team always agrees with you, it's probably time to replace a few of them. This can sound harsh, but there is great benefit in having someone in your inner circle that has a completely different point of view on issues. If replacing them is not an option, then demand they take an opposing view or play devil's advocate. By considering multiple and alternative perspectives, leaders develop a broader and fuller understanding of the issues and problems they face, which leads to better decisions.

Ask lots of questions. If you suspect the people on your team are just telling you what you want to hear, ask a lot of challenging and deep questions that cause them to defend their points of view. This has multiple benefits that include revealing new information that hasn't been considered and developing your team to think through their positions, taking ownership of their own beliefs. Once they know you'll prod, they'll think harder about the position they take.

Be careful who you "hand-pick." Avoid the temptation of assembling a team of folks simply on the merit of them "getting" the vision of where you want the project to go. You do need some of those people, but make sure you add some alternative perspectives to the mix, as well. These can help your team see a wider range of viewpoints, which in turn will yield a better product or outcome.

Create an environment that encourages disagreements. Diverse thinking can reveal blind spots and force leaders to come to terms with biases that cause error in judgment and decision making. This kind of learning and development comes from the friction (and I might even say conflict) of differing ideas. But it's up to the leadership to create the environment that facilitates the friction.

Be willing to admit when you're wrong. This one may be the hardest of all. However, we must come to terms with the fact that being wrong is OK. Error causes learning, and when we learn we grow as leaders. Leaders should give opposing views a platform, listen closely to the contributions of others and admit when they are wrong. After all, none of us knows everything.

It's easy to hire people into an organization simply to make it appear more diverse. It's much harder to invite people who disagree with you to sit at the table and help you make decisions. I'd argue that this is the most valuable part of diversity, because it forces you to think harder and broader, while considering and weighing alternative perspectives.

The challenge is that this is tough. Few people like to reveal their weaknesses or admit they can be wrong. So, instead of inviting debate, they insist on alignment. Instead of hiring boat-rockers, they hire paddlers. It is imperative that anyone who calls themselves a leader have the moral courage to be challenged. After all, as a good friend likes to say, "Discourse causes learning."  And, leaders should always be learning. So, take a look around and ask yourself, "How diverse is my organization?"  It might not be as diverse as it appears, and that ought to give you something to think about.