Can You Have Too Much Diversity?

I’m helping put together a diversity-themed event for a client, and an interesting question came up that I want to share with you: Can you have too much diversity?

Now, the question originated from a very conservative, white, Christian person, someone who had a work experience where there were apparently a lot of chefs in the kitchen. It was too loud, nothing got done, and everyone was fighting. It made my neck itch just thinking about it, yuck. But that scenario is not unheard of, so it’s a valid question. To which I say, no. In my mind, in the workplace, you can’t have too much diversity — in theory.

That qualifier is important. Because without the right foundation, too much diversity will be a headache. To avoid the bad and maximize the good, you must have a charter — whether it’s formal or informal, spoken or unspoken —that governs how your individual team members will behave collectively. Now, ideally your organization has already done the work to establish a respectful culture, so a charter would be a moot point. The practices that it would include would already be ingrained into the cultural morays of the organization:

  1. Be respectful of all perspectives and opinions, even if you don’t agree.
  2. Give every person the floor when it is their turn to speak, and don’t interrupt.
  3. Be willing to embrace new, different ideas and suggestions without judgement.

I’ll give you an example. As a journalist, I’ve interviewed hundreds of people over the years. A best practice for effective interviewing is effective listening. But I slipped recently while interviewing a diversity and inclusion expert for a client. You know how you have instant chemistry with someone? Like, they literally feel like a friend five minutes into the call? I enjoyed talking to this woman so much, when I listened to the interview later I realized I stepped on her comments several times, even talked over her once or twice. It was very unlikely me. I like listening, it’s the first step in learning.

I was embarrassed, and I sent her an apology email. She was very gracious, told me she hadn’t even noticed we were vibing so hard, finishing each other’s sentences and thoughts like sisters. But that is a mistake, talking over someone, not letting them have their time in the sun, so to speak. It can have repercussions too, extremely negative ones that can linger and fester and cause larger problems if not addressed.

Let’s say you’re the one who’s always talked over, or who never seems to get a turn to speak. You might be the only one in the group who ever concedes the floor to your peers. If you care, it’s reasonable to assume that you’ll eventually become resentful. And if you express your concern to a manager and you’re not taken seriously? Well, that’s a whole new level of it’s time to look around for a new opportunity.

It is a leader’s responsibility to ensure that all team members feel valued, heard, and seen. If there are members on the team who don’t, that is a leadership problem. A corporate case of the ringmaster letting the elephants and whatnot run the circus.

In order to reap all of the benefits inherent to a diverse and inclusive workforce — creativity, innovation, problem solving, engagement etc. — all members need to be able to contribute equally. Whether they do or not is another blog. But having the untested opportunity to contribute, that should be a given.

It’s not automatically or always easy to entertain a plethora of diverse perspectives around one conference room table — or Zoom call, as is the norm these days. It can be frustrating communicating with three people, let alone a large team. But when everyone knows and plays by the rules, the collaboration that results can produce great work. I’ve seen it personally.

Further, I’ve had good leaders who made sure that everyone had an opportunity to share, and were given appropriate credit for their contributions. I can tell you honestly that those workplaces got the best work from me because I was happy to be there, and eager to give the game my all. I’m working with a woman often these days who is so good about routinely giving me credit for everything I do, after seven months of working together, it’s still incredibly refreshing. It wasn’t until I began to work with her that I realized how lacking past work situations have been. It’s shocking when I think back, but there speaks the difference in good and bad leadership.

What do you think? Can you have too much diversity? I’d be interested to hear what you think. Please sound off in the comments.

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