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February 2, 2011

Corporate Diversity In the Spotlight: Three Tips for Managing Ethnic Tension in the Workplace

In the spotlight this week: Dr. Kyle Scott, Lecturer, University of Houston

Whether it is the Israel/Palestinian conflict, new immigrants in Europe and the U.S., or tribal conflicts in Africa, there is no escaping the harsh reality that when diverse groups live within close proximity to one another, there can be conflict — which too frequently turns violent. But, one need not live in a far off land or be in the political sector to experience what happens when a diverse group of individuals is collected and forced to interact with one another.

While the stakes may not be as high on the assembly line or in the cubicle, dealing with diversity in the workplace is an obstacle that stands in the way of productivity. Whether it is in the government, the military or the business world, good management is needed to keep diversity from becoming a hindrance when it could be an asset. What follows is a three-point plan that can help management in any sector better handle diversity.

Size Matters: The size at which organizations operate is perhaps the most crucial component of managing well. An organization that is too big will not be able to treat its members as meaningful contributors and risks alienating them. Moreover, an organization that is too big will not be able to recognize a problem until it is too late. Conversely, an organization that is too small can't achieve its full potential. No one wants a military that is too small to defend its people or a call center that cannot handle the workload. Large numbers of people are necessary, particularly in business where specialization and a division of labor is necessary.

This is where management strategies come into play. The goal is to capture the positive attributes of both large and small organizations. This can be accomplished through the creation of small working groups with enough autonomy to accomplish tasks on their own. This will enable organizations to grow as large as necessary without compromising accountability and interpersonal communication. Within such a structure problems can be recognized before they get too big thus enabling managers to be proactive in finding solutions. Equally important is the fact that the people within the groups can get to know one another on a more personal level and are able to overcome the prejudices when one only knows 'of' someone and their sexual orientation or ethnic background. In small groups members become more moderate and more understanding of opposing positions thus making conflict less likely when the members represent diverse positions.

People Matter: This is related to the issue of size, but still it is important to remember that people matter, and they matter for at least two reasons. (1) People must be involved in the decision making procedures. (2) There are natural leaders and natural followers within any group. On the first point: people have a natural desire to communicate and have input. To close them off from this will only lead to animosity and perhaps lead them to look for some person or group to blame or take their frustration out on while not knowing why they feel alienated or disenfranchised. Moreover, if you do not include the people in the decision making process you may never learn what the true problem is or what solutions might be available. More input, when funneled through constructive channels is always good.

Second, you must know which people are likely to lead and which are likely to follow if you want to know if the leaders are leading in a positive direction. Leaders do not have to be in official power positions to take the lead so it is important to control their interactions with the natural followers if the natural leader is increasing the tension level for one himself and those who are likely to follow. In this respect size and people come together as an organization will not be able to recognize the leaders and their disposition if the organization is structured as a large monolith.

Leaders Matter: Aside from natural leaders, there are those within organizations who are placed in official positions of power and authority that must be able to handle the difficult situations associated with diversity. Leaders must be able to work within the system to address problems and be sensitive to the needs of the people within the organization. Leaders must embody the values of the organization while not appearing to be 'a company man.' A leader must look to build understanding and cooperation without those efforts coming across as artificial or manufactured.

There is a certain amount of luck involved in getting a good leader but when you find leaders from within the system who have been developed through the organization that reinforces these values then your luck will improve. Promoting from within an organization that is designed to identify the natural leaders will not only recognize those leaders but will cultivate the necessary values in those leaders so that when they take an official leadership role their efforts will be genuine. And since the system is designed to grant autonomy to its groups and leaders the values of the organization will be the guide for policies and decisions made by the leaders rather than an operation guide outlining how to handle each situation. Such manuals can never address all situations adequately and therefore often prove ineffective. The only effective means for addressing problems as they arise is a flexible leadership structure that is populated by those who have adopted the organization's values as their own.

Every organization is different and every population is different, therefore the strategies employed to address the unique problems that arise within diverse populations need to be dynamic and adaptable. A static set of rules will always fail as it will not be able to address the dynamic nature of people and their needs. One of the primary advantages of is system outlined is that it is adaptable and responsive so that the policies will always reflect the changing needs of the organization. It is only within such a system that conflict can be averted.

Dr. Kyle Scott is a lecturer at the University of Houston, with a Ph.D. in Political Science: American Political Theory and Public Law. He has authored two books and a forthcoming third, "Federalism: Theory and Practice," will be available Spring 2011. Kyle has taught American Politics, Political Theory, and Public Law at Miami University and University of North Florida.

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