Identity Groups and Diversity

By Guy Higgins

Reading the local newspaper before the recent elections, I was struck by the headline, “Pursuing City Council Diversity.” The city in the headline is not the city in which I live, but my city council is also pursuing diversity. I want to start by outlining what the two cities are considering.

The city in the headline is considering a couple of new ordnances that would impose strict term limits on members of the council. The idea being that by compelling election of new members via term limits, they would increase the chances of electing people other than the “usual suspects.” The city council where I live is considering establishing advisory councils to bring different ideas to the city council.

I’ve posted about diversity several times, and those Noble Readers who, recalling those posts, have probably already concluded that I don’t think that either of those ideas will work – and they would be right.

Imposing term limits will certainly ensure that the council will, eventually, include new blood. That, however, does nothing to actually ensure that the council will have a more diverse (and I am referring to cognitively diverse – not more women or minorities or more of whatever measure of identity diversity you want) membership. In fact, I think that it is extremely difficult to increase the cognitive diversity of an elected body if the voting populace has a strong cognitively homogeneous majority – as is the case in the city in the headline. I have found it interesting that the newspaper endorsed for council member a candidate from the minority party – and they did so because the newspaper editors felt that the council was not conducting discussions and debates that included truly different ideas and too seldom was there any serious push back from any council member on proposals that should be very thoroughly understood and debated. Basically, what the paper was bemoaning was the lack of cognitive diversity within the city council. True to my assertion about a homogeneous majority, the candidate endorsed by the paper lost the election to one of the “usual suspects.”

The city council for the city within which I live is trying to work through the problem of voters electing cognitively homogeneous council – even though that’s not exactly the way they talk about it. By trying to gain different perspectives through identity-group advisory councils, they are looking at a way that has some potential. The problem, of course, is that each advisory council brings a homogeneous perspective to the council (or at least that’s the way to bet). The council still won’t have the opportunity to build on various diverse ideas and concepts because it seems unlikely that they will have all the various advisory groups together at one time. A better way might be to establish an advisory council that includes representation from various identity groups (teens, seniors, Hispanics, etc.). While that won’t guarantee cognitive diversity, if the council is careful in establishing the membership (method TBD), they can significantly improve the likelihood that the advisory council will be cognitively diverse. That’s half the problem – the other half is that the advisory council needs to understand how to take advantage of their cognitive diversity and build good ideas and concepts. That second half will take some time and effort.

I’m writing about this because companies and other organizations often want to improve their diversity, and in doing so, they frequently focus on identity diversity and miss the chance to improve their decision-making (and other) performance. Companies can choose cognitively diverse leadership rather than submitting to an electorate, but the leadership needs to understand and seek that diversity. I also think that company leaders should not establish, charter or support identity diversity groups – on company time. There is nothing wrong with the Ancient Order of Hibernians or LGBT or millennial social organizations. People have the right to associate with whomever they choose. That said, while company leadership should absolutely respect identity differences, companies need to work together and endorsing or supporting groups that silo themselves (even for short periods of time) does not contribute to the company working together as a whole. This is a very sensitive subject and company leadership needs to be completely transparent about what they are doing and why. They need to work out their messages and approach and not announce any such significant policy by email or on the website or whatever – and the leadership should use it’s cognitive diversity to do that (including whether or not to support or prohibit identity-diverse groups within the company on company time).

Again, I’m not proposing that identity groups be banned or demeaned. I’m only saying that they don’t really contribute to the diversity needed for making good business decisions, and that diversity is a potential source of power that should be tapped.







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