There's Value in Diversity

By Senior Chief Yeoman Mike Tainter, U.S. Navy (Retired)

Diversity allows an organization to have many different views for every undertaking. If we concentrate on the similarities among people, instead of their differences, we can enhance mutual understanding. Teaching differences only leads to failure, because no one can understand the true feelings of being somebody else. People who view themselves as similar to one another—a matter of equality—will be more apt to work well together.

What Is Diversity?

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 established legal parameters for the diverse workforce, requiring organizations to establish such programs as equal employment opportunity and affirmative action. In 1987, the Hudson Institute's report Workforce 2000 revitalized the issue of working with employees from all racial and ethnic backgrounds, claiming that by the year 2000 the workforce would become predominantly female and ethnic.

The military plans to deal with the problems of a diverse workforce. The past 30 years have been dedicated to teaching our leaders the legal issues pertaining to sexual harassment, discrimination, and hostile environments. The main focus has been to sensitize personnel, in order to give them an understanding of what it was like to be "different."

Many definitions have been used to explain diversity, and most often, it has been linked to "cultural" diversity, in which "cultural" refers to the following widely used definition: "a workforce that is multiracial, multicultural, and multiethnic." This definition is pre-loaded with the idea that "diversity" means a workforce consisting of people whose looks and acts deviate from a standard norm. From this definition have sprung policies and procedures for handling problems in the workplace that are based on racial, ethnic, and cultural differences.

Culture, race, and ethnicity placed diversity on a path of dissatisfaction. These words concentrate on human attributes that cannot be changed. A new approach was needed and Dr. R. Roosevelt Thomas, Jr., founder and president of the American Institute for Managing Diversity, Inc., offered a much simpler definition that created a broader view of diversity: "Diversity refers to any mixture of items characterized by differences and similarities." The new definition includes similarities. The idea is to identify differences and similarities to create understanding and establish common threads among people.

"Mixture" is another key element of the new definition. If we look at diversity as a mixture, we easily can identify the value. Consider a collection of 200 pennies in a jar; 150 minted before 1950 and silver in color, and 50 minted in 1997 and copper in color. Though we can identify the differences and similarities between the coins, the value of the jar of pennies is no less than $2.00. The mixture of pennies creates the value of the jar. Matching the metaphor to diversity, an organization's total value stems from the mixture of its people and their unique backgrounds.

Finally, diversity consists of many elements. Culture, race, and ethnicity are considerations, but not definitions. Diversity relates to demographics as well as concepts and ideas. Sailors in aviation fields have values and points of view that differ from those of Sailors in surface warfare. Environmental issues also will affect the ideas and values of employees across a wide range of issues. In addition, the Navy operates ships and bases throughout the world, in environments with differing religious, social, and economic values.

The Past

If we buy the history that defines this country as a melting pot, then we expect all newcomers to blend into our society so they eventually will become unnoticeable as different. They will be Americans. But, this view is unrealistic. If it were true, we would not add descriptors to describe Americans. Common examples are African Americans and Native Americans. Such a view concentrates on differences and does not permit common ground to be established.

In the past, managing diversity required special emphasis on preventing discrimination. Leaders tried to create an atmosphere in which people of different cultures would conform to the dominant one. The desired result was a Navy of people with the same views. The focus of today's farsighted leaders is not to assimilate, but to recognize and appreciate differences and similarities, transforming the melting pot to a salad bowl. The new result is building a workforce of people who share the same purpose, without their uniqueness being discounted.

The past has served to define our future, and past diversity training failed to provide the desired growth. Seven characteristics of early diversity training led to its failure:

  • Trainers were usually women or ethnic minorities, and trainees were usually straight, white, American, males. This approach did not take into account the needs of the trainees, who could not relate to the trainers.
  • The emphasis was on sensitizing leaders. The general feeling was that our leaders needed to adjust the most.
  • The programs usually reflected a specific set of values. The premise here was that there was a universal right and wrong. This approach failed because the concentration was on attitude adjustment, not behavior.
  • Diversity awareness was the sole theme of the program. Emphasis was on differences, and too often discussions got into sensitive issues that left people with hurt feelings.
  • Programs frequently were guilt-driven. Too often, attendees who were not minorities were inundated with grave injustices of the past.
  • How something was said gained more importance than what was said. To address an issue, efforts focused on choosing the correct language instead of the realistic intent. Attendees were required to address people as "Chairperson" instead of "Chairman" or "African American" instead of "Black."
  • Time orientation was mostly past and future. None of the discussions focused on the here and now.

Results of early diversity training often were negative, and failed to provide the Navy with an avenue for effective change. Another failure of diversity training was that it did not include all Sailors. Too much time was spent educating top-level leaders on ways to deal with diversity problems, while the more junior Sailors were sent to Navy Rights & Responsibilities workshops with their peers. Though it is important to obtain the approval and support from the top, it is equally important to educate the most junior personnel.

Behavior and Communication

What is the Navy supposed to do about this new concept of valuing diversity? Just teach plain old civil behavior to create an atmosphere in which each person is valued. The main premise is that teaching Sailors the behaviors that are not acceptable in the workplace is much more effective than attempting to modify attitudes.

The real issue of managing diversity hinges upon one basic principle: communicating. As the age-old phrase says, "we agree to disagree." Spending more time on teaching communication skills and similarities between people rather than differences will have a far greater impact on the movement toward valuing a diverse Navy.

Five basic concepts can lead to increased effectiveness of diversity management:

  • Communicate a commitment to fair treatment.
  • Focus on what people have in common.
  • Identify unacceptable conduct and prohibit it.
  • Teach rules of civil behavior.
  • Define the issue as one of risk management.

The outline that follows is the type of training and commitment needed to effectively manage diversity in the Navy. It makes sense to apply this approach to the Navy as a whole, because the Navy is a global organization.

Valuing Navy Diversity

I. Commitment

A. Set the tone through a firm policy statement from the Chief of Naval Operations.

B. Emphasize a long-standing cultural theme in the Navy—Lead by example!

C. Gather senior leaders who firmly reemphasize the commitment to valuing diversity.

II. Communication

A. Conduct training to teach people how to identify communication styles.

B. Train people how to identify their own communication styles.

C. Hold quarterly activities that emphasize communication techniques.

D. Teach people about the value and techniques of conflict management.

III. Behavior

A. Design a training plan that teaches Sailors the "right" and "wrong" behaviors.

B. Publish the consequences of not conforming to the "right" behavior.

C. Identify the similarities that exist between people and emphasize its value to the organization.

D. Reward the "right" behavior by providing feedback to people who are conforming to the Navy's standards.

IV. Follow up

A. Conduct an assessment to determine the effectiveness of the new approach to managing diversity.

B. Follow up by observation in the workplace—is there a difference before and after training?

C. Conduct interviews up and down the chain of command, to determine if there are unresolved issues and if a course of action is planned.

D. Publish the results of the assessment to keep everyone informed of the results of the new approach.

E. Take action to correct deficiencies in a timely manner. Get commitment from top to bottom.

F. Execute a plan of action to ensure goals are met and the process for continuous improvement is emphasized.

G. Provide a copy of the plan of action to everyone to solicit their support and to ensure constant progress toward valuing diversity.

Senior Chief Tainter recently retired from active duty. His most recent assignment was as administrative department supervisor at Naval Training Center, Great Lakes, Illinois. His other assignments have included duty on the St. Louis (LKA-116), the Meyerkord (FF-1058), Strike Fighter Squadron 147, Strike Fighter Squadron 87, and the staffs of Commander, Carrier Group Five, and Commander, Naval Surface Forces Pacific.


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