Commentary: Implementing Diversity

Lead Author: Dr. Jeff Howe

Publish date: 03.01.2006


Avoiding 1 + 1 = .....1 Benefiting from Gender, Age and Personality Differences


Not too long ago, I participated in a two-day conference, the objective of which was to put together “top leaders” of the forest industry and use a professionally facilitated process to identify the three or four key issues that needed to be addressed to ensure both sustainable forestry and a sustainable forest products industry. A great and noble purpose indeed! Attendance was by “invitation only,” and the conference organizers were able to get all but one of the fifty or so invitees, to attend. After the opening round of introductions on the first day, I took a moment to write down on a piece of paper the top three outcomes I would predict the group to develop. At the end of day two, the group came up with four basic recommendations, the three I had predicted and one more. So, does this mean I have extra sensory perception (ESP)? No! Was I being cynical? Yes indeed! But was I right? Yes. The question is, how was I able to, in less than half an hour, deduce what would be the outcome of two days of hard work by a group of fifty highly skilled (with very valuable time) leaders in forestry and forest products?


From the title of this commentary, you should have anticipated that diversity, or the lack thereof, is going to be a component of the answer to this question. Today, many people immediately link diversity specifically to race. Thus there are regions of the country that figure they don't have to worry about the diversity issue because of the extremely low percentages of “non-whites” in that region. But diversity isn't just about skin color, though this factor is very important. In decision-making, diversity is essentially about ideas, thoughts, and perceptions. For the purposes of this discussion, and so it is applicable to all regions of the country, and to every city or town, I will largely ignore the racial implications of diversity and leave that to others. In this discussion I just want to simply point out the benefits of considering the diversity indicators of gender, age, and personality type in putting together a group to identify solutions to important problems. I contend that inclusion of at least two of those three diversity indicators is not only important in decision-making, but essential to solving any problem worthy of involving more than five people.


Now, it shouldn't take much convincing to point out that men and women differ in many ways. Personally, I have never heard a fellow husband point out “boy does my wife think exactly like me or what?” Whether differences are based in biology, culture, or some other factor is less important than the fact they exist and are important. Not only are there differences between the genders, but the proportion of men and women is about fifty-fifty in virtually every part of the world, so the differences between the two genders are a constant reality and always important. My first clue to the potential results of the conference discussed in paragraph one was the fact that all attendees were male.


With regard to age, most people recognize that people of different ages have different perspectives. This is extremely obvious when comparing the very young and the very old, but is no less a reality from generation to generation. The differences in outlook between a twenty-five year old and a fifty year old can be as dramatic on certain issues as between a two year old and a great-grandparent. The more complex and emotional the issues are, the greater the likelihood that the differences in perspective between ages will be important. Recent research into workplace dynamics has identified important and useful distinctions between “Traditionalists” (born before 1945), “Baby boomers” (1946-1964), “Gen Xers (1965-1981) and Millenials (1982-2000). These differences are reflected in each generation's needs, expectations, and values. Thus, my second clue to the likely results of the conference came from the fact that all attendees were not only male, but all but one were between the ages of 45 and 55.


Personality type is rarely considered in organizational plans and even less so in the formation of groups brought together to solve complex problems. Yet, this is critically important. If a group is large enough, inclusion of an array of personality types is likely just due to random chance. The interesting point in the recent conference was that it was not random as all were invited either by direct knowledge of the organizers or by direct referral by those they knew. Thus the odds of group variety were greatly reduced by the process in which the group was identified.


Fortunately, as pointed out by a number of researchers in recent years, personality typing processes need not be that complex. In fact, there is some consensus that there really are only four basic personality types. Angeles Arrien's research into indigenous groups concluded that indigenous people across the globe have for thousands of years grouped individuals into four basic categories or behaviors. She describes these as the warrior, teacher, visionary, and healer archetypes. Consistent between her research and that of others is the basic theme that two of the archetypes are indicative of a more reflective or closed personality, and two are generally more open. Various personalities can also be identified through use of the Meyers-Briggs exercise or other tools. In any event, the process by which members of a group are selected is very important, and it is equally important that the facilitation of a meeting include at its core consideration of the fact that input from a variety of personalities is needed. Every facilitator needs to be aware of this critical issue and focus certain aspects of the process to identify and proactively seek input from those personality types that might, in some cases, be in the vast minority.


In the recent conference that I attended, a further early clue to the outcome came to me in the fact that the three-minute self-introductions of participants suggested that nearly all of the attendees had varying degrees of what would be described as a closed personality type. This would not be unexpected in a group of this type as it is indicative of people that are good at analyzing data and/or project management; these are dominant personality types in some (particularly mature) industries. Open personalities tend to be rather impatient with activities such as a two-day conference or have an overriding concern about people issues. It is important to note that each of the four personality types is not mutually exclusive of the others, and so it is not accurate to say that a closed personality does not care about people. The differences, rather, lie in the dominant skill sets and thus the probable focus. As hypocritical as it may seem, often a first step to evaluating for the inclusion of diversity is to generalize and lump people in what may seem to be stereotypical or overly generalized categories. In other words, it is often helpful to first look to see if the obvious categories are covered (e.g, gender and age) before attempting to get at the more nuanced ones.


What it all comes down to is that the conference I attended included fifty or so white males, ages 45 to 55, all with high analytical or project management focuses. Thus I predicted that their top three issues would be price, volume, and regulations; all issues that are highly analytical and prone to being segmented into manageable chunks. After two days of extremely well-facilitated discussions the group concluded that the following were the top three things we needed to address:


  • Insuring access to low-cost raw materials (price)

  • Insuring access to sufficient raw materials (volume)

  • Reducing the regulatory hurdles faced by industry (regulation)


You might wonder how I went from observing a lack of diversity in gender, age, and personality to an accurate prediction of three very specific outcomes. One key is I am a white male age 53 with a fairly analytical personality. My predictive power was based largely on experience that was gained through attending meetings with similar groups over a period of more than twenty years. Not surprisingly, I have found that when basically the same group is brought together again and again to discuss recurring issues, the outputs tend to be remarkably similar. Kipling aptly commented on this kind of situation, observing that “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”


How might the outcome of this meeting been different had there been more diversity among participants? There is no way to know. However, had there been diversity in, say, gender, age, and personality types, the range of perspectives brought to the discussion would almost certainly have been more diverse as well.


Could I have influenced the group toward a different outcome? I found attempts to point out the biased nature of the process and to modify the outcome by participating proactively in the process to be unsuccessful due to the democratic nature of the facilitation. Any suggested approaches that differed dramatically from the "norm" were consistently ranked as low priorities by way of the group voting process. Thus a better means of recognizing both the need for diversity and to accommodate that diversity when present was needed.


So the gist of all this is that the next time you get a group together to discuss important issues, the first and most important thing you must consider is the nature of the individuals you include. Look around the room – if everyone looks and feels the same – don't expect significantly varied ideas to emerge in the discussion. If change (and a little bit of constructive conflict) is what you seek, then you must first seek diversity in the inputs of the individuals that are guiding the process. One place to start is to proactively seek out individuals of varying gender, age, and personality. Two of those at an absolute minimum and depending on the topic, racial or cultural variation may be essential as well. The last thing you want to do is waste time in a situation where 1 + 1 = 1!


Dr. Jeff Howe

March 2006