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The psychodynamics of racial diversity in the workplace

Updated: Jun 4

Diversity management is a popular topic for many reasons. Some good and some bad but for the most part because it is relevant. Nobody can deny that our world is becoming increasingly diverse and this means finding new ways to accomodate our differences. No other human civilization has had to faced the presenting issues brought on by diversity at such a large scale as we do. Therefore, its not surprising that diversity is a trending topic on popular media.

However, the media portrayal and presentation of diversity is largely negative. This is mostly driven by large companies and popular figures denouncing their commitment to diversity in their organisations and policies. Media is known to prioritise information that will produce the most traction. So it is difficult to examine the scientific justifications for the negativity surrounding diversity as a topic in media portrayals. As a scientist practitioner, my task is to let the science guide my decision making. Nonetheless, on face validity it seems that most of the negativity around diversity in the media is centred around race. This is unfortunate because it paints a rigid and limiting understanding of what the concept is.

Defining diversity as a concept:

According to Google and Oxford dictionary, the two top definitions of diversity are (1) "The state of being diverse" (2) "the practice or quality of including or involving people from a range of different social and ethnic backgrounds and of different genders, sexual orientations, etc". Simply put, diversity is about flexibility of differences. Including gender, race, sexual orientations, socio-economic background, neurodiversity, and more. Naturally, this should apply to most people because we all have some differences in one area or the other compared to the next person. So why then do we struggle to get this right?

The research:

To answer this question, I had to shift from being a consumer of popular media to thinking like a science-practitioner. I decided to carry out a depth psychological study exploring our unconscious experiences related to diversity in the workplace. The workplace is the perfect place for researching diversity because its one of the places where getting diversity right is so important. Diversity is linked with positive teams and organisational outcomes, however, this require organisations to create the right context for diversity to flourish. Failing to do so means chaos, tension, conflict, and worse team outcomes. But organisations must continuously adapt to their operating environment and in most environments diversity in the population is a constant. So the need for solutions to facilitate a thriving context for diversity has never been higher.

However, as conflicting the views are on diversity in the media, so too is the evidence for diversity in the scientific literature. Despite the constant attempt for studies to find a reliable solution to diversity in the workplace, the overall combined evidence is inconsistent and remains conflicting. It must be mentioned that most studies aim to understand external factors such as differences in communication. I decided to focus on internal factors such as differences in depth psychological experiences.

The findings:

While external factors are crucial to get right for effective diversity management, the internal factors posed different types of challenges. For example, our psychological experiences are usually dynamic, prone to fluctuations, and operates largely out of awareness to facilitate fluidity in behaviours. This means that people can still behave in ways that become a barrier to diverse experiences even when the external context is facilitating. Thus, solutions and interventions must attend to both external and internal factors for a successful diversity management. Below are some of the internal factors found in the study that can derail your diversity effort.

  • The greater the differences in experiences the harder it becomes to see the other person. It becomes easier to lose sight of the bigger picture

  • The higher the anxieties the greater the need to distant from others. Relationships are likely to break down

  • You are attracted to the relationships you know in your personal lives. People out of the ordinary are experienced as threatening

The above points capture just some of the realities of diversity. While addressing the external factors are crucial for diversity management, diversity is often experienced as difficult to understand, excacerbated by high levels of anxieties, and strongly influenced by our personal stories. While there are different facets to the study findings such as the role of leadership and self regulation, from a psychodynamic perspective difficulties with diversity seems to capture the ongoing struggle to move from the intrapersonal to the interpersonal.

Download the full study here

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