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Speed Review: The End of Diversity as We Know It

Speed Review: The End of Diversity as We Know It

Speed Review: The End of Diversity as We Know It

Why Diversity Efforts Fail and How Leveraging Difference Can Succeed

by Martin N. Davidson

Ultimately this is a book about leadership. As with any other strategic imperative, leaders need to take an active role—drive rather than just delegate. Successfully leveraging difference can be what distinguishes an ordinary organization from an extraordinary one.


Why We Need A New Diversity Paradigm

In a groundbreaking and thoughtful analysis of an issue that continues to confound well-meaning executives and organizations, University of Virginia Professor Martin Davidson challenges the basic assumptions of today’s corporate diversity programs and offers an alternative approach.

The goal of traditional diversity programs, Davidson writes in The End of Diversity as We Know It, is to attract a diverse work force and help them work well together. Diversity is seen as a human resources mandate instead of a chance to create value for the company. "In many organizations, the indicators of whether diversity efforts are successful have been how many people from group X are hired, promoted or fired, or how much product is sold to group Y," Davidson writes. "This approach doesn’t begin to do justice to the potentially positive effect that differences can have on an organization."

Davidson argues that companies need to move from today’s practice of "managing diversity" to a new diversity paradigm based on "leveraging difference." Managing diversity is the HR-driven exercise described above and is often unsuccessful for a variety of reasons. For example, a diversity program can actually limit the opportunities for minorities, as in one case where an African-American woman was consistently passed over for promotion so that her department could remain diverse. Davidson also debunks the notion that diversity automatically enhances the success of a company.

On the other hand, leveraging difference can have a major impact on the success of a company, Davidson writes. The term "difference" goes beyond the typical parameters of diversity. As Davidson explains, "Differences certainly may be based on demographics such as race, gender or age. But they are also based on functional differences, personality, attitudes and values, cognition, and even emotional states." One company with which Davidson worked looked for new employees who were "different" from current employees because they had experience working for competitors.

The key to leveraging difference is the starting point of the entire process: the organization’s overall business and strategic goals. A company’s strategy defines what "difference" it seeks to add to its work force. Adding women to a male-dominated work force can bring in new perspectives. Another company, however, may feel the need to bring in more extroverts.

Of course, leveraging difference should not be used as an excuse to ignore the traditional differences addressed by previous diversity programs, Davidson warns. As he explains: "A cogent Leveraging Difference strategy could very well require leaders to deal exclusively with the intractable challenges of gender or race. But the Leveraging Difference frame, unlike its counterpart, never assumes these are the only differences that matter."

The Leveraging Difference Cycle

Davidson presents a three-component framework called the Leveraging Difference Cycle to help executives apply the theory of "leverage difference" to their companies. The first component is "see difference," that is, identifying differences, traditional or less traditional, that are relevant to the company's strategy. Cultural background or physical ability, for example, might be the differences that are particularly relevant to success of one company.

The next component is "understand difference," that is, gaining a clear appreciation of the nuances and implications related to the difference.

The third component is "engage difference," that is, finding ways to leverage difference to enhance the organization. This is the action step of the process, and can involve, for example, collaboration across multiple groups and advancing innovative approaches.

While engaging difference is an action step, a company is finally truly leveraging difference when, according to Davidson, it "systematically achieves results by continuously using differences."

Using a multitude of real-life examples, Davidson drills deep into each of the framework’s components, fully explaining what companies and the executives who run them must do to leverage difference effectively. This is an important, practical book that should lead to a widespread re-evaluation of today’s diversity programs.

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