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Don't Be Afraid to Promote Diversity

Read your company's policies on promoting racial, ethnic and gender diversity. See a tone of negativity, with words such as "comply" often at the forefront? They make you want to toe the line, rather than do what's in the best interest of the organization.

In other words, they instill fear, and the discussions that come out of them are often negative rather than positive. And the resulting actions might be just as bad, such as a white supervisor afraid of giving a minority employee constructive criticism out of fear of a discrimination action.

In a recent working paper reported on HBS Working Knowledge, professors David Thomas and Lakshmi Ramarajan suggest a different approach. Diversity should be understood as something that makes the organization stronger. Thomas' own research shows, for example, that racially diverse teams are more productive.

"When you're in the mindset of 'We should alleviate prejudice' or 'We should reduce conflict,' then you're in a prevention focus -- a concern with protection and responsibility," Ramarajan says. "Whereas if you look at it as 'I want to increase relationships' or 'I want to create ways in which people have open communication,' then it's very much promotion-focused -- a concern with advancement and growth."

This does not mean putting a positive spin on a clearly dismal track record of promotion. But even in this situation there can be positives to build upon. Thomas discusses his work with a bank where only 3 percent of top executives were of color.

"We wanted to understand, when people of color do break through to C-suite jobs what's the path, what are the dynamics, what facilitates it."

It's time to check your own diversity programs to see if they create a positive atmosphere, rather than one of fear. What do you see in your organization?

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(Photo by Flickr user OregonDOT, CC 2.0)
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