Manage Ethnic Tension in the Workplace
By Kyle Scott
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.
One of the biggest debates in the U.S. Congress has been whether to repeal 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' and how to integrate openly gay service men and women into the military ranks without disturbing the balance or camaraderie that is needed in battle. And 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.