We Interrupt our Regularly Scheduled Programming to talk about Diversity and Empathy

Transcultural Panda

Guangxi Province, China, Ancient Han Village outside Yangshuo

Yesterday, I attended a panel presentation in downtown Seattle, hosted by Northeastern University’s satellite campus (yes, that’s right folks — the folks from Boston) regarding diversity, and how to increase it, in the workplace.  The first part of the panel held few surprises — lots of the usual stuff about leaders having to step forward and make diversity important (think ‘bottom of the empathy pyramid/mirroring behavior’) — and not a whole lot of pronounced thought about empathetic connection as a way of holding diverse constituencies in place once one went through the trouble of hiring them.  Other than it wasn’t easy, because the Pacific Northwest/Seattle isn’t a particularly diverse place, and when people didn’t feel comfortable (or really connected) they would move back to family and places where they did.


The Emergent Empathy Pyramid — Don’t go thinking it’s Sympathy!

All the panelists said the usual stuff about diverse workforces being more creative, and that new products and systems needed the input from lots of folks in order to create breakthrough products.  Readers of this blog will likely guess that I agree with this viewpoint — and I do.  But I’m not sure that I agree with it for the more surface- level viewpoints that others have advanced with the diversity argument.  I actually think that this part of the argument is pretty weak.  To my mind, the ‘consumer preferences’ part of the argument typically advanced by the diversity promotion crowd holds maybe a little water — but not much.

Why? Start-ups make lots of different products, and most of the engineering that occurs on them has very little to do with life experiences that individuals have where can actually give that kind of meaningful input.  If someone’s making an esophageal probe, well — all people have an esophagus, and the fact that my past involved chasing cows around the barn really doesn’t help me add much to the physics of what goes on inside someone’s esophagus during surgery.

Additionally, all around the world, there is an increasing positive homogenization of human experience — nothing shows this better than Hans Rosling’s videos on global health.  Even in my own experience, only 23 years ago, when you traveled to the Developing World, it was imperative to be careful about everything you ate, and most of what you drank, or you’d get sick in short order.  Now, making the mistake of washing your toothbrush with tap water is no critical error, save in only the most desperate economies.  Tragedy — the real teacher of surface level experience, and the thing that really separates discriminated against populations from dominant in-groups, while not eliminated, exists in lesser forms, especially as a function of percentage of population.

Why do we hang on to this belief regarding the value of diversity, when there are likely much more profound benefits to diversity than we currently realize?  Understanding this worldview once again gets back to the social/relational structure of researchers, who in their own fragmented worldview, look at the individual being the creator, or even the creator of a sub-system for a larger system, instead of a part of a true integrated team and all that is entailed in that statement.  Plus, the story of the diverse team pulling from childhood stories is a powerful meme in itself.  Many people would find that far more compelling than the more complex interpretations offered by this blog.

A much more profound reason for diverse teams rests in understanding our own transition from lower-level emotional empathy to communities based on rational empathy.  The research has pretty clearly shown that humans do not feel the pain, nor have our pain modulated as automatically by members of racial/gender-based out-groups as it is by members of our in-groups.  In other words, it’s a lot easier to impulsively hate on people outside your own ethnic/racial/gender subgroup than folks who look just like you.

What that means, however, is that what diversity also does is drive more development of rational empathy in work environments.  It makes us work our brains harder, because we have to engage in more place-taking than if everyone looks like us.  That encourages us to be more data-driven thinkers, and pay more attention to assuring coherence in stories and concepts.  And that extra empathetic development in team formation fundamentally drives more synthesis, creativity, and synergy, because it forces more independent relational generation.  More data driven, more trust-based.  It forces us to surface our deeper emotional empathetic biases and makes us more self-aware.

In short, it makes us better people.  Who would have thought?  🙂

Talking about self-awareness and self-differentiation are on the topic list for future blog posts.  And I think that the standard diversity theorists would agree with one thing in particular that this perspective triggers.  Diverse work groups force us to evolve.

Takeaways:  Diversity doesn’t only benefit creative teams through different experiences.  The rational empathy that diverse relationships require drive deeper data-driven thought and trust.  And that can separate us from our biases and get us all just a little closer to the truth.

Shout out to Dean Garfield, whose interaction at the event forced me to think through all this more thoroughly!

8 thoughts on “We Interrupt our Regularly Scheduled Programming to talk about Diversity and Empathy

  1. In order for each member in a diverse group to really “turn on” their empathy antenna, each member needs to first feel somewhat SAFE in this group, which means a more equal and collaborative relationship. Otherwise, none of them will be within the “Window of Tolerance,” which is the window for our nerve system to embrace and process new experience.
    Even when we put the maximum diversity in a “Red (Authoritarian)” group meme set, members can’t be forced to develop more rational empathy……members may end of oppressing the “minority” among diversity. That’s probably why most academic program fails to really teach diversity…….
    Just my two cents.


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