As the world becomes more complex, and as people migrate from this country to that one, the need for workplace diversity training will rise. But how deep do most of these programs go, and what effect do they actually have in the long run? I have been part of many such courses, and often felt that participants leave without grasping the real dynamics that govern workplace diversity.
During my work with groups over the past years, I’ve come to learn that there are two distinct processes that has an impact on diversity dynamics. The first of these, is the process of forming individual and group identity. The second process is that of discrimination. I believe, without doubt, that where diversity programmes do not focus on these core processes, they might prove to be very shallow.
To my mind, both processes are natural and subconscious. With this, I imply that they will spontaneously happen, except if there is a conscious intervention to do otherwise. Think, for instance, of the last time someone new was appointed at your workplace. The first thing such person usually does, it to try and fit in somewhere. All of us have a strong need to identify with a collective. This probably has something to do with the fact that survival is much easier in groups than it would be for an individual. This is a process of identity forming. And where resources are limited, such group will try and control it. This inevitably implies that any other group, or groups, become a threat. In so, it is just natural for a group to exclude others from entering their group. This is a process of discrimination, and it will follow the process of identity forming. Below, I explore the two processes in detail.
Identity Forming starts with a need to survive. Resources are mostly limited and not easily attained. And often one must confront danger to obtain such. This was especially true for the cave man. In fact, a critical success factor in controlling resources, is a species ability to hunt in teams. Humans; orca’s; chimpanzees; lions; etc., are clear examples of “super” predators who have mastered this art. For humans, it was beneficial to work in teams, simply because this made it easier to get food, and it curbed external threats. The anxiety of not being able to survive individually, therefore moved people to be part of teams.
This is as true of modern society as it was for ancient groups. For instance, in South Africa today, we see more and more multiracial consultancy groups. So, the black and white consulting team has become quite a familiar sight. Once more, this is a manifestation of people who create collective identities so that they can survive. People; teams; and organisations, might have many reasons for this, but it is simply a strategy to survive.
Unfortunately, where we form and join a collective identity, it creates a new anxiety, which relates to an intense fear that the group might break up. To the individual, the group has become a container of safety and survival. There is also the possibility that one can be expelled from a group. Or worse, that the group is absorbed or controlled by other groups. To contain these anxieties, groups very quickly develop common purpose and rules of behaviour. In essence, the difference between a group and a team is that the latter has clearly defined purpose (mission). As the implicit beliefs of group members become explicit, values will evolve. And as the group grows into their mission, leaders will come forth with intent.
Now, human anxiety is a catch-22 concept, since where you try to contain it, a new anxiety will rise. In so, the anxiety to survive will create shared identity, which in turn will cause a fear of group annihilation, etc. In due course, groups will try to preserve their social constructs in binding their uniqueness through symbols and rituals. This process will not only define their identity, but it will also fulfil a feeling of oneness and belonging.
And as this process strengthens, culture is born. In this, the collective identity is now “glued” and bonded. For this reason, culture is no more than a collective identity forming process.
Also, a covert purpose of culture, is to contain the anxiety of a world that changes and evolves, without end. In having a culture, we create an illusion of stability. This is a phantasy that things are not changing, and that the group is safe and secure. I use the word “illusion”, because we know that change is not only an inevitable reality, but also the only constant within our time and space bound existence.
It is key to note, that our survival is not only physical, but also psychological. For instance, a group who gets together to gossip, would consciously find fault in others so that they can unconsciously “export” their flaws. In doing this, they create a brief feeling of inner strength and power.
In precis; the collective identity forming process starts form a need to survive. This need creates anxiety, which leads to the forming or joining of a group. Once a group is joined, it creates its own anxiety in terms of ‘group non-permanence’. This fear of group expiration will now lead its members to foster common purpose and behaviour, which is then, metaphorically, preserved through symbols and rituals. As this collective construct becomes part of the groups being, it will become culture.
It is likely that where the group identity is formed, a process of discrimination will follow. Mostly, this has a lot to do with power. As mentioned, resources are limited. This makes an established group a threat to any other group, simply since they all survive from the same resource pool.
Discrimination is mostly not a thing that we consciously do. Its starts when we put groups into categories such as, men and women; black, white and asian; heterosexual, bisexual and homosexual; Zulus, Xhosas, Afrikaners; etc. This is categorisation, and it takes place when we split groups by giving them clear definition and traits. Of course, this is a method to simplify difference, and it holds no harm. It is functional and makes life easy.
It is when we make assumptions about these categories, where the evil begins. These assumptions are mostly motivated by a group’s own anxieties. For example, where we state that “Afrikaners are racists”, we then locate racism in Afrikaners, and in so we do not have to deal with our own issues of racism. In such we can, for instance, assume that Zulus are violent. And in doing so, we now perceive ourselves as peaceful.
It is human nature to assert your own assumptions. As we continue to do so, we will build evidence that prove our assumptions of different categories. The effect is that these assumptions now become beliefs. A belief is a non-negotiable truth that one holds about something. Mostly such a “truth” is defended without proof or evidence. This is the process of stereotyping. We might, for instance, stop assuming that women are bad drivers, since we “now know” that they are. When we stereotype, we uphold our beliefs, such as; “black people are not intelligent”; “white people are racist”; “Indian people are sly”, etc. Where you stereotype, your view is mostly oversimplified and one-sided. The process is mostly a subconscious one, and its use is to protect the phantasy of a group or person, that they are superior in some way. A stereotype always seems to have very distinctive labels attached, such as, “good” or “bad”; “strong” or “weak”; “more” or “less”, etc.
It is key to note that discrimination is very much a dynamic where we split and project. This is the process of taking a part inside oneself – a part that one does not want to admit or own up to – and then locating it somewhere else. A practical example would be where a group starts working with the “evil” group, or the “non-cooperative” department down the hallway. In this, the group starts a phantasy that they denote something “good”, and the other group something “evil”.
As we continue to split; project; and stereotype, the need to “deal with” the other group will strengthen. This is prejudice. Examples are where white people start discussing methods of controlling black people, before they get out of hand; or where black people suggests that white people should be sorted out, before they do worse things than they have done before. Prejudice is a fixed generalisation, and we mostly base it on data that has no proof.
Where a group starts with prejudice, it will end in discrimination. It is when we purposely exclude a human category from a specific privilege, or from being part of a group, where we discriminate. There are several ways in which we can discriminate, such as being, sexist; racist; homophobic; ageist; etc. Mostly the purpose of discrimination is to hold on to power, and the anxiety of losing control over resources, often provokes this act.
At a very deep and subconscious level, we often use discrimination to flight from our own dysfunctions. Again, I refer to split and projection. Let us entertain the example of Hitler and his theory of a superior race. Problem was that Hitler himself did not fit the Arian description. He had brown hair, brown eyes, and a weak physique. In fact, very few Germans actually fitted the Arian bill. They somehow had to deal with these perceived impurities, and the Jewish people were very conveniently used for this purpose. By putting Jews in concentration camps, and through torture and abuse, the Germans could split, project, and “kill” their own “impurities”. These Jewish people were also Germans. Thus the German nation has split themselves into different parts. In this, they were able to project their own perceived impurities onto a minority group. This action firmly proved their illusion that one group is “good”, and that the other is “evil”.
It is important to know that it is in our human nature to discriminate. It is a way of surviving. Groups and individuals must consciously work hard at not discriminating. Even if you do not want to do so, you eventually will. Human history is adequate proof of this statement.
I hope that this piece has shown that human diversity has many complexities, which one must deal with. Some of the dynamics are conscious, but many are not. It is key to grasp the effect that survival; identity; and discrimination, has on human diversity. We must further know that these processes do not deal with the whole diversity spectrum. A few other aspects are: character; nature; paradigms; and relatedness. But these are themes that I save for another write-up.
Originally posted on www.derekhendrikz.com in 2000, revamped in 2016.
© 21 September 2016
© (c) 2016 Derek Hendrikz Consulting
I acknowledge and appreciate the analogy to the A-Team and the 6 attributes/characteristics of a HPT. In real life though, HPT are not as cut and dry and simple as the theory makes it out to be, and HPT’s are constantly evolving as the team develops. Some of the reasons for the constant shift is members leave and new ones are admitted to teams, building new relationships and team dynamics due to changes, competing responsibilities of team members (as managers, we do not have the luxury of working on a single project at a time and are expected to keep a number of balls in the air simultaneously), mentoring of younger and less experienced team members to reach their potential. I agree that defining a clear goal and having this commonality to steer the team is imperative, however goals are high level and need to be broken down into bit-sized chunks for individual team members to assign roles and responsibilities. Clear objectives are important that speak to how the goal will be accomplished and who is responsible for what contribution towards the common goal.
Thank you - very interesting article, but all very true. This made me think of leadership and how to deal with diversity issues. A few years ago we touched on this during the 9 Conversations Leadership program and what was discussed then, ties up very well with this article.
Some interesting insights for me, relates to the formulation of culture and it emanating from survival anxiety – maybe some similarity to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs? And how easy it is to stereotype – Us vs them, and finding the collective fight like the “fees must fall”
So the question I have , is discrimination truly evil or just an justified act of survival?
In addition to other very important influences on diversity, such as individuality, paradigms and relatedness, top down buy-in, and in fact a policy around these important factors should be the guidelines to workplace diversity evolution.