What’s In Your Toolbox?

Author: Jennifer Bryan, Ph.D.
From the Leadership + Design monthly newsletter, March 2018

These days it is difficult to find an independent or innovative school that doesn’t tout the inherent value of Diversity (capital D). Diversity is central to our missionWe celebrate diversity of all kinds. Yet when Ito and Howe recommend Diversity Over Ability in Whiplash: How to Survive our Faster Future, it’s likely that many of their readers aren’t sure (a) what exactly “diversity” means, OR (b) whether diversity is truly the be-all-and-end-all of successful outcomes 12.

Diversity is a modern day Rorschach. The inkblot looks like gender to me, race to you, socio-economic status to your colleague and sexual orientation to your department chair. We think of diversity in terms of various identities. However, when Ito and Howe recommend diversity over ability, “the claim is not that identity differences produce benefits directly but rather that they do so through the diverse cognitive tools that the various identities foster.” The idea is that your life experience— which is profoundly impacted by your identities— contributes to how you see and interpret the world. Experience determines what ends up in each person’s toolbox of capacities.

More tools, different tools, better toolbox, right? That depends.

Thirty years ago one of my professors in graduate school invited me to join him on a consulting job. The client, a huge global advertising company, wanted help training middle managers to lead their teams more effectively. There were 60 participants from around the world, representing multiple nationalities, ethnicities, cultures, languages, races, genders and ages. We randomly assigned people to small groups,  gave them a 20 question multiple choice quiz on principles of leadership, and videotaped them working on their task.

When the groups convened, participants quickly recognized the quiz as one they had completed individually the night before and had handed in at the beginning of the day’s session. The familiarity of the task elicited laughter and an easing of anxiety. Several groups finished the task in just 10 minutes, though others complained that 30 minutes allotted was not enough time. Regardless of how quickly or slowly they worked, most groups were dominated by 2 or 3 participants (typically white, American or European, English-speaking men) while other members were ignored or remained silent.

Click here to read what managers learned from this experience.