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Diversity means viewing a situation from multiple perspectives or angles.

Diversity is not just common sense

By Nicciat | Nicci Attfield | 31 Jan 2021


Why do diversity practitioners speak about common sense as problematic?

Have you ever wondered why diversity practitioners speak about 'common sense' as problematic? What would it mean to question common sense and why would it be helpful? Surely, if common sense is there to help us through life, and if people praise us for having an 'abundance of it', then questioning it would be unhelpful? 


Questioning common sense is one of the founding principles of diversity work. This is because common sense is shaped or formed by social myths which masquerade as 'truths'. These truths often become widely accepted ways of seeing the world. People may, for example, believe in a voice for every person' without thinking about the audial language of Deaf culture. 


Questioning common sense helps us to ask which other truths or belief systems are made invisible so that power balances may remain unequally distributed.


It’s important to question common sense when working towards diversity in the workplace


Why would common sense not be helpful to diversity management? Quite simply it leaves many workplace myths and corporate blind spots unchallenged. It could be argued, for example, that a person with a high level of skill or experience should be given a high profile position in a company. Common sense may state that staff with high levels of experience have worked hard and deserve to be promoted. However, Kurt April, international diversity consultant and professor at UCT’s graduate school of business, argues that many women are forced to leave a place of employment once they have children. This is because many companies do not have policies in place to ensure a woman can both keep her career and nurture her children. Kurt April, therefore, argues that companies should shortlist candidates with the most potential, creating a greater opportunity for gender equality.


Begin by exploring who benefits from policies in place


Workplace policies might be designed to include a certain number of women in the workplace. They may even incorporate several multicultural candidates, or make space for people with disabilities. However, these people may face high levels of stress, should workplace policies remain unquestioned. Andrew Faull explored diversity within a police station setting and found that many ‘black’ men, appointed to fill out diversity quotas, we're unable to move or transfer from the police station, despite struggles they were facing. Not surprisingly, there were a large number of suicides amongst ‘black’ policemen. It is only when companies are willing to ask who benefits from a specific policy, and who loses out, that true transformation may take place. By asking this very important question, management can move beyond common sense perceptions to explore how inequalities may be upheld.


Insight is the greatest tool for diversity

Instead of working with common sense, or previously held belief systems, management can move into a space of empathy. The role of empathy in innovation and change was explored by Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO. Tim Brown explains that marginalised groups have the greatest level of insight into current social problems. This is because marginalized people face challenges that are often ignored by mainstream society. A city planner may benefit from asking a person who cannot read how s/he navigates the city. Hospital patients are often most able to give insight into how to design a waiting room. People with disabilities may give insights into the ease of access.


Many people who are not from marginalized groups may be oblivious to the challenges marginalized groups face. A Facebook friend recently shared a humorous cartoon on disability. In this cartoon, people with disabilities were invited to phone for help when accessing a building. The phone was situated at the top of a small staircase. It may be common sense to offer help, but without insight into the struggles disabled people face, this help may not be effective.


Opening up conversations enables new insights to emerge

To work from an empathic perspective, Tim Brown stresses the importance of opening up new conversations. By including marginalized perspectives, creativity begins to flow and innovation flourishes. Brown explains that creativity will not happen when staff hierarchies are emphasised. This is because many staff members will try to guess what management wants to hear instead of offering up new insights. Tim Brown, therefore, explains how staff may be encouraged to build upon each other’s ideas, growing and learning from one another until new insights emerge. By offering up new perspectives and engaging with difference, insights become more complex.


When diverse staff are given a voice, staff retention improves

Instead of relying on common sense, questioning enables change. It also improves staff retention. By creating spaces for all staff members to belong and by encouraging individuals to shine, a workplace becomes more enjoyable. Kurt April explains that many women leave their workplace positions because they believe they have more potential than they can offer! While all companies might want their staff to offer up their best work, this won’t happen if set hierarchies reduce the potential for creativity. Staff who feel as though they do not belong in the workplace will struggle to share their thoughts and ideas.


Diversity and Inclusion needs to extend beyond the boardroom


While management might be able to use common sense within the boardroom, this is not enough to create change for marginalised groups within the workplace. Instead, when companies create an atmosphere of belonging, creating spaces for all staff to shine, transformation occurs. By recognising that all voices offer unique perspectives, management creates room for innovation. It is the human experience which offers up insight into new markets, increasing the market, rather than the professional opinions alone.


Exploring blind spots opens the door to innovation

When it comes to diversity management, common sense is limiting. This is because diversity cannot simply be measured objectively. It is often the limits of current knowledge which need to be extended for true innovation to occur. If management focuses only on what is already known, they face their limited world views. By exploring and deepening the space for new knowledge and insights, and by building upon these conversations, creativity can thrive. Not only does this create an atmosphere of belonging or inclusion, but it enables new insights to emerge.


Diversity is not about acknowledging previously held belief systems. It is about creating space for marginalized perspectives to thrive. Without this, any effort at transformation is mere tokenism.


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Nicci Attfield
Nicci Attfield

I am a freelance writer focusing on psychology and mental health, ecopsychology, identity, social justice and parenting. I love coffee, books and rainy afternoons.

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