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Building a House for Diversity: How a Fable About a Giraffe & an Elephant Offers New Strategies for Today's Workforce

Building a House for Diversity: How a Fable About a Giraffe & an Elephant Offers New Strategies for Today's Workforce

by R. Roosevelt Thomas, Marjorie I. Woodruff

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"What could an elephant and a giraffe teach people about working together? Some very important lessons, it seems, about the complex--and critically important--issues of dealing with diversity in the workforce.

Building a House for Diversity begins with a short fable about how a friendship between the two animals is


"What could an elephant and a giraffe teach people about working together? Some very important lessons, it seems, about the complex--and critically important--issues of dealing with diversity in the workforce.

Building a House for Diversity begins with a short fable about how a friendship between the two animals is threatened when the house built for a tall, skinny giraffe cannot accommodate his invited guest, a broad, bulky elephant. Using this story as a vivid metaphor for the difficult issues inherent in diversity, the book goes on to demonstrate how managing diversity can be seen as a set of skills that anyone can learn and use.

In a way that makes diversity management ""up close and personal,"" Building a House for Diversity offers compelling, real-life stories of individual experiences at work. It includes:

• The perspective of both ""insiders"" (usually white males) and ""outsiders"" (usually minorities or women)

• Insightful commentary illuminating what these experiences tell us about the challenges and opportunities of diversity

• A particularly interesting segment on Phil Jackson, legendary Chicago Bulls coach, and how he dealt with diversity issues in his relationships to Michael Jordan, Dennis Rodman, Scottie Pippin, and others

• Hands-on guidance to help readers become ""diversity mature"" and take personal responsibility for their attitudes and actions.

Throughout, the book reflects the seminal thinking of R. Roosevelt Thomas, Jr., a pioneer in articulating the concepts of managing diversity. In this book, he has produced his most creative and practical approach to this continuing challenge."

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Building a House for Diversity is a must-read.”

-Business Report & Journal (Savannah, GA)

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 2: Diversity Effectiveness: An Overview

...Are Clear About Requirements

Achieving the company's mission and vision through diversity management requires being able to distinguish between a genuine requirement and a preference, convenience, or tradition, and then basing actions on requirements, and nothing else. It sounds simple, but it is a common and serious stumbling block. Often a decision to accept or reject a certain element of a diversity mixture is rationalized with, "This is something we need," when in fact the truth is closer to, "I like it better this way, or "I don't agree with this behavior." Effective diversity respondents can identify the genuine requirements and consistently use them as a basis for making decisions about diversity.

Learning to distinguish real requirements is discussed in more detail in Chapters 5, 9, and 13. Those who have already learned this lesson include Phil Jackson (Chapter 3), Bill Smith (Chapter 4), Joan (Chapter 8), and Kirk (Chapter 12). Those who found this to be a stumbling block include Mark and Debra (Chapter 7) and Richard (Chapter 8). As you read, look for the link between acting on preferences, and personal frustration and reduced organizational effectiveness.

Cope With Diversity Complexity and Tension

Genuine diversity increases complexity. To choose one is to get the other. Diversity-mature individuals don't shrink from this complexity; they accept it as part of the diversity package.

The elephant and the giraffe, as we read in Chapter 1, encountered complexity, to their mutual dismay. Humans who un-derstand and accept complexity include Phil Jackson (Chapter 3), Bill Smith(Chapter 4), Richard (Chapter 8), and Kirk (Chapter 12). Ray (Chapter 6), Mark (Chapter 7), George (Chapter 10), and Jeff (Chapter 11) struggle with it.

Diversity-mature individuals know that when people with different backgrounds, perspectives, and objectives express themselves openly, there will be tension. This tension is not in-herently positive or negative, good or bad; it simply is. Tension that promotes healthy competition can be good. Tension that immobilizes a unit is clearly not.

The difficulty is that many individuals, like many organizations, are so uncomfortable with tension that they focus on eliminating it rather than managing it. They place more importance on harmony than on achieving objectives. Diversity-mature individuals learn to function in the face of tension. They know it isn't personal but rather is part and parcel of the dynamics of diversity. Phil Jackson (Chapter 3) shows great skill in putting tension in perspective and managing it well, as do Bill Smith (Chapter 4) and Richard (Chapter 8). Kirk (Chapter 12) also handles it well. Ray and Carol (both in Chapter 6), Debra (Chapter 7), and George (Chapter 10) are clearly uncomfortable with it.

However, tension and conflict are not the same. Tension becomes conflict when it is responded to ineptly. Diversity conflict arises when people ask unproductive questions, such as, "What's wrong with you that you aren't more like me?"

Are Willing to Challenge Conventional Wisdom

Diversity-mature individuals have challenged conventional wisdom and made mind-set shifts along the way.

Place Differences in Context

Recently some organizations, to encourage the acceptance and valuing of all employees, have focused on "celebrating differences," the implication being that all differences are good.

Effective diversity respondents, however, know that differences simply are. They exist. Whether they are good, bad, or neutral depends on the context: that is, whether the difference has any effect, either positive or negative, on the organization's ability to accomplish its goals. Effective diversity respondents base "accept" or "reject" decisions on how the differences mesh with these realities. They can accept attributes that fit even when their personal preferences are violated. The importance of evaluating differences in context is given further attention in the personal stories of Phil Jackson (Chapter 3), Bill Smith (Chapter 4), Carol (Chapter 6), Richard (Chapter 8), and Kirk (Chapter 12).

Let Go of Hindering Concepts. Diversity-mature individuals are able to let go of hindering concepts; that is, they can do key "unlearning." They need to reject, if they have not already done so, the notion that only those with exceptional interpersonal skills can succeed with diversity management.

These individuals don't discount the need to challenge stereotypes, be open to differences, or be flexible, all commonly cited as necessary "characteristics" from which to approach diversity. But they don't see these as personality traits or characteristics, which are either innate or require special training to achieve. They know that individuals willing to learn the diversity concepts and make the mind-set shifts will find that the process elicits from them the necessary behaviors.

Joan (Chapter 8) and Kirk (Chapter 12) have learned that effective diversity skills don't depend on inherent traits.

Engage in Continuous Learning

Diversity-mature individuals know that they are engaged in a continuous learning process. Diversity effectiveness requires a willingness and ability to monitor both yourself and the environment, to challenge yourself regularly, and to devise specific ways to work with the new concepts so that eventually they become second nature.

The benefits of continuous learning and the costs of its absence are demonstrated explicitly or implicitly in each of the stories in the following chapters.

Effective diversity respondents have worked to acquire contextual knowledge, an understanding of diversity and its major concepts, and a comfort with diversity's dynamics. But to put these principles into action consistently, they need one thing more: a framework process. Such a process, once internalized, provides a structure for deciding how to act in specific situations. It helps people size up a situation quickly and address it effectively and efficiently. It serves as a guide to determining what they should be doing and monitoring how well they are doing it.

My earlier work, Redefining Diversity,' offers such a framework. It consists of three steps, which we can also think of as three core diversity skills: The consistent use of the process together with the skills embedded within it is the second of the two requirements for becoming an effective diversity respondent.

Core Diversity Skills: A Framework Process

Ability to identify diversity mixtures and their related tensions. Since unidentified mixtures can't be addressed, this is a critical skill. On the surface it seems simple and straightforward, yet many fail to master it. There is a natural tendency to focus on the diversity mixtures in which they have an interest, and to ignore others.

In several of the stories that follow, people overemphasize one diversity dimension-usually race or gender-at the expense of identifying other mixtures that may be having more effect on whether they achieve their goals.

Ability to analyze the mixtures and related tensions. Not all identified mixtures need be addressed-only those that interfere with achieving goals. How key is the mixture? How disruptive are the tensions? Is any action needed? Will taking action help meet significant organizational objectives?

Phil Jackson (Chapter 3) and Bill Smith (Chapter 4) demonstrate an ability to make such an analysis. In several of the stories, the same overemphasis on a "pet" diversity dimension that led to a failure to identify significant mixtures discourages people from determining which mixtures and tensions are in most need of being addressed.

Ability to select an appropriate response. If action is needed, what should that action be? A framework process helps by presenting a consistent structure for evaluating possible actions. The process described in Redefining Diversity outlines eight generic action options that may apply in any given situation. (These eight options include (1) increase/ decrease, (2) deny, (3) assimilate, (4) suppress, (5) isolate, (6) tolerate, (7) build future relationships, and (8) foster mutual adaptation. They are described in the appendix of this book.) They serve as a kind of mental checklist to guide people through a chain of thinking that ensures they will have the greatest number of options to consider. The skill lies in being able to sort quickly through the possible options and choose the most effective one. Like most other skills, it is best learned through practice .2

Adeptness with these three critical skills is analyzed in all of the interview chapters. Those with the most commitment to inclusion and assimilation are least likely to demonstrate these skills. Those most comfortable with behavior diversity are most likely to employ them. The consistent use of the process together with the skills embedded within it is the second of the two requirements for becoming an effective diversity respondent.

Effective diversity respondents demonstrate a kind of diversity maturity that allows them to internalize key diversity concepts and use them to inform their actions. They are adept at applying the core diversity skills as well. Both diversity maturity and demonstration of the core skills require education, training, and practice. The result-becoming an effective diversity respondent—is worth the effort...

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"Praise for Roosevelt Thomas's Beyond Race and Gender:

""One of the best business books of 1991."" --Library Journal

""Rich with examples, it is a superb book that merits our keen attention."" --American Society for Training and Development"

Meet the Author

"R. ROOSEVELT THOMAS, Jr., Ph.D. (Atlanta, GA) one of America's most respected authorities on diversity issues, is CEO of R. Thomas Consulting & Training, Inc. and founder of the American Institute for Managing Diversity. He is the author of Beyond Race and Gender (AMACOM 0-8144-7807-7) and Redefining Diversity (AMACOM 0-8144-0228-3).

MARJORIE I. WOODRUFF is Director of Curriculum Development at R. Thomas Consulting & Training, Inc."

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