Diversity In The Workplace – The New Frontier

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People who are in life-long recovery from a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) face many challenges, none of them perhaps as daunting as re-entering the workplace. I know because I have a son who is facing this challenge.

On the flip side, as an organizational consultant, I’ve experienced a key challenge that organizations face, and that is fostering a work climate that embraces differences – of all kinds. A picture of Jean Hurd

Over the past few decades there has been a growing focus on “diversity” in the workplace. Major strides have been made. There is far more acceptance of ethnic, religious, gender, racial differences. Companies have even created positions – Vice President of Diversity – to help ensure that differences are included and accepted.

But I’ve observed that there is a frontier that still needs to be conquered, and that is diversity of personality, and social behaviors. These can feel hard to accommodate – they surprise, throw us off balance, make us feel uncomfortable. We want the person to be more like us, want them to be “normal.” What do we do when we encounter someone who is (as many TBI survivors are) just “different” in some way? How do we open our minds to the needs of others, and see the possibilities and gifts of one who may be problematic in their physical needs, or their behavior. How do we assist?

The spectrum of “disabilities,” “handicaps,” “challenges” is wide. Often, our awareness is only raised when that particular issue hits home, in our family, friends, or neighborhood. At which point we learn about that issue, and how to be with it, accept it, and ideally support the person in being who they are. We need to find ways to bring that same acceptance into the workplace culture.

There is a great deal of effort in many individual disciplines in preparing people with unique behavioral or physical challenges for the workplace. There may be physical differences or “invisible” differences that show up in behaviors from quirky to extremely challenging. Frequently, advice to those who are “different” focuses on what that individual has to do to fit in better, to be more like the majority. And this is important, for sure. But the flip side, and where the real growth is needed, is how the majority can work to accommodate, and allow to flourish, the one who may be “a point off the curve.”

Just on the level of personality, in my work, I see the positive things that happen when a whole team or group has raised their awareness of an individual with differences. The group takes responsibility for success for all – and here is the really important part – everyone in the group benefits from the enlarged awareness and sensitivity that is present. All are better heard and accepted, and the contribution of each is enhanced. The group becomes more flexible and open, and creativity virtually always increases.

In my career, I’ve been privileged to see this in action, although not often enough. One example stands out. Many years ago, I was consulting to an Information Technology group in a major corporation. One day I attended a meeting of a particular team, maybe 15 people. I noticed one of the members was in a wheel chair, somewhat contorted, and clearly challenged in his ability to speak. There were important issues to discuss and it was a dynamic and fast-paced conversation – everyone with ideas to contribute or important questions to raise. But at one point the group grew quiet, and then this man spoke, slowly, carefully. The group listened intently – his point was particularly cogent. The discussion went on. Later, again, through some unseen signal or collective awareness, the group again went quiet – another cut-to-the-chase contribution.

Two things were abundantly clear. This “handicapped” professional was a key player in the group. AND, this was only possible because the team embraced him as he was, and as a group made the accommodation necessary for him to be present, and his voice to be heard. He wasn’t expected to be like everyone else, rather everyone else held themselves accountable for allowing his diversity not to be a barrier. And they were a better performing team because of it.

I learned more important lessons-for-life watching that interaction than I did about whatever the “critical” technological issue was that was being discussed. And I carry it with me in every organizational challenge I face. Lessons for just being a better human being, for teamwork, for organizations that thrive in the midst of diversity and challenge. It’s a true win-win-win at all three levels. And society gets a little more tolerant, civil, expansive and creative each time we rise to the challenge. CC


About the Author:

Ms. Sayko’s professional background includes several decades of executive management in technology development and healthcare systems. Ms. Sayko has helped found technology start-ups and has worked for both major corporations and as an independent contractor. Currently Ms. Sayko sits on the board of The Acquired Brain Injury Network of Pennsylvania (ABIN-Pa) and is the Community Education Coordinator for Delaware County, Pennsylvania.