The Human Approach to Diversity

April 6, 2021

The Human Approach to Diversity

Mandates and statistical metrics have failed to produce desired results in diversity, equity and inclusion. It’s time for a more human approach.

When we focus on our differences, rather than our similarities, we create division. When we embrace our similarities, rather than our differences, we create connection. Having lived and worked in different parts of the world, I’ve learned that human connection is the foundation for healthy diversity. While no two people experience the same life, regardless of who we are or where we are from, we all share and connect through our common human essence. 

Diversity is a mindset, not a formula. People—not mandates—drive successful diversity outcomes. Many current strategies fall short because they focus too much on statistical metrics while failing to foster core human connections. Through my business career of over 30 years with diverse U.S. multinational corporations, I have seen colleagues of all races express cynicism and distrust toward diversity mandates that did not take into account individual feelings. I’ve witnessed some people take advantage of the system, many others react with resentment and frustration, and others go through the motions to avoid legal implications. Nonetheless, most of my colleagues wanted to make a difference in advancing acceptance and unity—but they felt their hands were tied. 

How can leaders and employees create an environment where we see past our differences and foster human connections? Successful diversity programs require helping people move away from labels to see each other as individuals; nurturing a sense of belonging by reducing diversity elements that divide; having leadership that takes bold actions to carry out necessary changes.

Readjusting Organizational Mindsets

The way we see and interact with others can either open a window for connection or pollute the space with division. Our well-intentioned, race-based diversity framework has been based on labels. When we see people as labels, we insert distance; when we meet an individual behind the label, we create connection—the chasm between the two mindsets is immense. 

Since I came to the United States some 50 years ago, I’ve been labeled as an Asian minority, an Asian immigrant, an Asian American woman, a Korean American woman, a woman of color and many more. In reality, none of these labels defines me—just like everyone else on this planet, I am far more than my skin color or race. Every time I sensed I was defined as a label, I felt alienated, constricted and reduced to a stereotype.

Organizations cannot forgo government mandates—however, they can promote human connection and openness by being mindful of their labeling practice in diversity programs. 

Fostering a Sense of Belonging 

A sense of belonging stems from feeling part of a cohesive team in the pursuit of collective goals—a powerful force for building sustainable diversity. The most important indicator of the success of your diversity program is how your employees feel about it. Many companies routinely conduct surveys. However, unless employees feel safe to voice their feelings, surveys will not provide an accurate picture. 

For example, an anonymous survey with the findings tabulated as a whole—not separated by racial groups—will better uncover your employees’ honest input. Survey results not separated by racial groups will loudly disseminate the message that everyone’s voice matters equally. These kinds of actions by management will gradually shift the diversity climate from one filled with guardedness and fear to one of openness and trust. 

Broadening Leadership Perspectives

In our time of heightened concern over racism and social justice, leaders have to do what is necessary rather than what is politically correct. When the status quo has not produced the desired results, we owe it to ourselves to search for alternatives. Our continuing racial divide should be the catalyst for leaders to consider an alternate diversity paradigm—balancing intangible human elements while complying with mandates to produce tangible results.

An organization’s diversity rides on the mindsets and actions of its leaders. With such privilege and responsibility given to them, leaders are accountable to examine the basis of their motivations and agendas. Diverging mindsets will produce diverging results—an environment 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.

As a leader, are you open to assess how you lead? Do you own the responsibility for making personal changes and broadening your own lens? Do you primarily rely on metrics to gauge your organization’s diversity or are you willing to incorporate intangible human elements into your diversity framework? Are you willing to take bold steps to make changes even if they might be risky and not popular, or will you do what is comfortable and politically correct?

The Authors: 

Soo Bong Peer is a strategy consultant, executive coach and author of The Essential Diversity Mindset.