The benefits of diversity in the workplace are widely acknowledged. It is good for people, and it's good for business.
A diverse workforce provides an organization with unique perspectives, but only when that workforce is mobilized and freely able to shine a light on their differences.
In September's Havard Business Review, Sandra E. Cha and Laura Morgan Roberts discussed how people of colour have succeeded in professional scenarios in which they are unrepresented. They had expected to hear stories of how individuals had blended into their environment, but instead found that many respondents said that to "to add value to their organizations and advance their careers, they had chosen not to blend in but rather to stand out". In essence, what makes you unique can help you get ahead.
Cha and Roberts offer four ways to make the most out of your differences at work:
- Offer a unique perspective. The lens of a cultural minority can give you a better understanding of the consumer needs of a demographic, and how a current solution might not be fit for purpose. For example, the designer Christine Mallon used her experience to cofound a non-profit devoted to the design of products and clothing for people with disabilities who represent 15% of the population. The adaptive clothing market has now been described as a multibillion-dollar opportunity.
- Provide quality control. Although not everyone wants to take on this unofficial role, many respondents talked about times where they had stopped insensitive advertising, products, or communications leaving the building. Many saw this as a result that benefited themselves, colleagues, and their organization as a whole.
- Bridge difference. Many individuals talked about how clients and colleagues were curious about their identity, often leading to well-meaning but stereotypical questions. Cha and Roberts suggest bridging the gap (assuming these questions were asked respectfully) instead of shutting down the conversation in the interest of building a stronger relationship.
- Plant seeds of rapport. Although a common identity does not equal guaranteed rapport, a journalist talked about how they were able to relate to the subject of a sensitive story by relating to her of many different levels of identity. The rapport she developed enabled her to poignantly and powerfully render the woman’s story.
The full report goes on to explain the risks associated with the approaches outlined above, including:
- overgeneralizing, and
Diversity is great, but not if people feel they have to hide their true self. Diversity needs to go hand in hand with an inclusive culture. That's one that allows all of its employees to bring their whole self to work, and leadership that supports new and challenging viewpoints.
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According to the conventional wisdom, if you want to succeed at work, you need to learn how to fit in culturally and play by the rules. The best strategy for success, the theory goes, is to downplay your differences—an approach that many cultural minorities, among them women and racial minorities, have embraced. When we began examining how professionals of color have succeeded in fields where they’re underrepresented, we expected many of them to tell us that they’d used some version of this strategy to get ahead. But that’s not what we heard in our interviews with Asian American and African American journalists. As we recently reported in Organization Science, many of these journalists, all accomplished professionals, told us that to add value to their organizations and advance their careers, they had chosen not to blend in but rather to stand out, by shining a light on their differences and mobilizing their identities. How can you make the most of your differences at work, especially as a cultural-minority professional? Here are four ways. (A caveat: There are risks with each of these strategies, which we’ll explore in a minute.)