People Issues and Diversity

There is an interesting article in Associations Now this month. It is particularly interesting to me because there is a lot in it that I strongly agree with, and other points that I pretty strongly disagree with. I rarely get that in an article.

It’s an article by Dick Grote about dealing with “people problems” in organizations. I really like one of his major points, which is you need to confront people problems with the individual involved, and you have to get specific about BOTH their behavior and the impact it is having. He suggests keeping track of the specific behaviors that cause problem (because despite what others might say, that co-worker isn’t “always” rude!), and then answer the “so what” question (meaning, what is the impact of the behavior). They won’t see the need to change the behavior of they don’t see the negative impact it is having. This takes it out of the squishy “bad attitude” area and into the “what are we going to do about this” area, which is where you need to be.

I disagreed, however, with his response to the diversity issue. He accurately points out that diversity issues are harder to confront with people, but he essentially dismisses the diversity part, focusing only on objective performance expectations:

As long as the manager is clear on the exact gap between what is expected and what is delivered in the individual’s performance, diversity and cultural issues are secondary… [T]olerating poorer performance from Jane than from Joe out of a misplaced concern for tolerance, diversity, and respect for cultural differences is insulting to Jane and unfair to Joe.


Does anyone else notice that by Grote’s definition, if a diversity issue exists, it is because Jane is not performing as well as Joe? He also implies that the standard response to diversity issues is to tolerate this poor performance.

One reason I don’t do much diversity work in organizations is that we seem to be incapable of having meaningful conversations about equity and diversity. Diversity issues are not usually about a poor performer playing the diversity card to his or her own advantage. People in privileged positions, I must admit, often frame it that way. And in case you’re wondering, the people in less privileged positions are acutely aware of that.

I, of course, agree with Grote that we should not allow someone to underperform merely because of an aspect of their identity. That is insulting and unfair. I am just frustrated that he colludes with so many of us in saying that diversity issues in the workplace are primarily about that. They are about so much more, and I wish we could talk about that. 


  1. 07.09.2006 at 1:36 pm

    Jamie, I couldn’t have said it better myself. I’m also frustrated with the way diversity is managed in Corporate America.
    When you examine how conflict intersects with diversity issues, the picture doesn’t get any clearer. Many times interpersonal conflicts are labeled as diversity issues simply because the people are from different ethnicities. It’s easier for managers to use this ‘shorthand’ to resolve the issue than actually attempt collaborative problem-solving it seems.
    More organizations, especially non-profits, should invest in conflict management and mediation training for their staffs. Having the capacity and expertise to step back, gain perspective without emotionality and seek deeper understanding would be invaluable to creating and maintaining a cohesive, energized, focused team.
    Jamie, you’re so wise. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.