The Value of Diversity & the Diversity of Value


By Alan Richter


Note: Part of this article appeared in Cultural Diversity at Work Online, January 2001 at www.diversitycentral.com

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Diversity and value are both deep philosophical terms whose interrelationship has been explored by many thinkers, though most have focused on the value of diversity. In this paper I will explore the diversity of value and tie it back to the value of diversity with the goal of shedding greater light on a framework for diversity work for the 21st century. But first we need to define terms.

The meaning of value as "something of worth" straddles both the quantitative and qualitative dimensions -- from meaning an amount in mathematics to meaning something of intrinsic worth in human relationships or personal life. The word "value" is related to and derived from valere, in Latin, meaning well or strong. The term diversity, in a business or workplace context, refers to all the ways in which people differ. These differences are often presented as core, usually stable, dimensions of identity such as gender, race, sexual orientation, age, etc., as well as more changeable though often also core dimensions of identity such as class, education, religion, social styles, thinking styles, etc.

So it should be no surprise that the study and practice of diversity is bound up with the notion of diversity being a valuable phenomenon, that is, that there's value to both having diversity and to managing and valuing diversity for a variety of reasons including ethical and business reasons. The ethical reasons usually include respect for differences, the rights of minorities, fairness in access and opportunity, the freedom of communities to self-determination, and tolerance and reverence for life, to name a few. The business reasons typically include greater profitability from serving larger, more diverse, markets, greater productivity and efficiency derived from a diverse workforce that feels included and empowered, and greater innovation resulting from diverse input, perspectives and interaction.

Diversity then has value, and this is not limited to the workplace or academia -- biodiversity is the basis for long-term survival in all species. Studies in complex systems and chaos theory support the value of diversity. Without diversity in the gene pool -- of plants, animals, or humans -- survival and health would be threatened. So differences at all levels are fundamentally good, or of value, and especially at the human level, assuming that these differences are accepted -- not denied, defended against or minimized, but rather leveraged and integrated.

What if we now reverse our perspective and look at the diversity of values, what do we encounter? Much work has been done on values at the personal, business and organizational, and societal level. At the personal level, research, inspired by psychologist Abraham Maslow in terms of a hierarchy of needs, points to ascending levels of values from survival, safety and belonging through to self-actualization. At the business level we find an interesting mix of "global" values (to be explained below) that could apply across all organizations as well as unique business values -- values around meeting goals, increasing operational and financial success or excellence, customer satisfaction and market penetration, and product innovation or leadership. Tracy and Wiersma in The Discipline of Market Leaders refer to all business strategy as analyzable down to three distinct meta-strategies -- Operational Excellence, Customer Intimacy and Product Leadership. The values underlying these business strategies include efficiency, quality, customer satisfaction, innovation and creativity -- terms we find in many company values statements.

However, most company values statements not only have "business" values, as described above, but also Global values -- what are these? By definition a global value must be something that all people or cultures value, with some flexibility given to how these values might be interpreted or acted upon by different groups or cultures. Think of the common values that all established religions uphold, that are central to all legal and constitutional systems worldwide. The research by Rushworth Kidder, in Shared Values for a Troubled World, lists eight global values; they are: freedom, fairness, unity (family or community), integrity, truth or honesty, respect or tolerance, responsibility, love or compassion, and reverence for life. You can compare this list with the great religions and will find substantial evidence from all for these values, though you may have to refine or redefine some of the terms. There are also overlaps -- for example responsibility overlaps with freedom - especially the "freedom to" variety as opposed to the "freedom from" variety. And love and compassion may overlap with family and community. In testing out this list with diverse groups of people I have seen that most of the terms are accepted as global -- with little argument about freedom, fairness, family or community, integrity, truth or honesty, and respect or tolerance. Reverence for life sometimes melds into spirituality, and the strongest contender that I have encountered for a global value not on Kidder's list is education or learning. Remember that global values are ideals and that having these values within a religion or a political constitution does not guarantee that in reality these values will be lived or achieved. Life is far too complex for that…

What is fascinating is examining the prioritizations among these values. Different cultures -- national and corporate -- will prioritize these values differently -- which means in a true ethical dilemma, or right-versus-right situation, different cultures will choose differently. This is the main reason, besides different definitions or actualizations of these values, that cultures clash. In the many workshops that I have run in which I ask culturally homogeneous groups to prioritize these global values for their culture clear worldwide patterns emerge. In the USA, for example, freedom is selected 99% of the time as the most important global value. In most of Asia, for example, family or community is selected over 90% of the time as the most important global value. This means that in a clash or ethical dilemma between the values of the community versus freedom, the USA and Asia will usually be in opposite camps. Europe is one of the more complex regions of the world since countries vary significantly in how they would prioritize these global values with fairness, integrity and responsibility added to freedom and family/community as top values.

As interesting as the variations are in how people prioritize global values, they represent something more. Global values may be seen as key "portals" for categorizing or framing diversity work today. I submit that a "values portal approach" allows diversity to address what it means in the deepest sense: to be inclusive of and to accept multiple perspectives, on a global scale.

This means that we can expect to see different, though related and sometimes overlapping work being done, depending on the value portal entered. For example, coming through the Respect portal, we typically see diversity work along the lines of understanding and valuing differences, sexual harassment prevention, understanding stereotypes, biases and assumptions, and understanding and reconciling differences. Which differences are addressed (e.g., gender, sexual orientation, race, language, religion, etc.) will vary across the world.

Coming through the Fairness/Justice portal, we typically see work along the lines of Affirmative Action, Employment Equity, breaking the glass ceiling, the digital divide, etc. And coming through the Truth/Integrity/Honesty portal, we typically see 1) at the individual level, personal diversity work, and work around values and personal transformation; 2) at the organizational level, work on business ethics, and performance management; and 3) at the societal level, truth and reconciliation work.

To provide an example of a business value through the "Customer Intimacy" portal, we typically see diversity work along the lines of cultural sensitivity training, niche marketing and global market research, civic philanthropy, and government and public sector service to diverse constituencies.

For me, the values portal approach opens the door to the fundamental nature of diversity work: encompassing differing values. This eclectic framework encourages us to more fully develop and refine diversity work across a broad spectrum. By keeping all value portals open wide, we invite practitioners worldwide to further explore the positive influence of diversity work in the 21st century.


Kidder, Rushworth. Shared Values for a Troubled World, Jossey-Bass, 1994

Treacy, Michael, and Fred Wiersema. The Discipline of Market Leaders, Adison-Wesley, 1995

Alan Richter is founder and president of QED Consulting. He may be contacted at alanrichter@qedconsulting.com



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