07/14/22 | Workplace

Diversity is Friction at its Finest

Below is a transcript of a talk our author gave for HR Leaders at Checkr, Namely, and Greenhouse about inclusive leadership, adapted as a blog post.

Let’s play a word association game. As you’re reading this, I want you to write down the words or phrases that come immediately to mind when you read “company diversity and inclusion.”

Write down what it means for you: _______.

Let me pause for 60 seconds there while you write.

Based on past experiences, I am willing to bet a lot of you wrote words or phrases like: “Community,” “Belonging,” or “Identity.”

Some of you may have listed specific identities, for example, gender, black or African American, People of Color, and LGBTQ+.

Maybe some of you wrote down words about particular programs like “hiring” or “training”.

Or even somewhat charged words such as “affirmative action” and “safe spaces.”

When there are skeptics in the crowd, they may write down: “marketing,” “window dressing,” and “touchy-feely”.

When I think of diversity and inclusion, I think of a very different, unexpected word. That word is FRICTION.

Why do I think of this word? – friction is one inevitable result when any organization – a company, a non-profit, a government agency, or a military unit – accepts more diverse members into its ranks.

When individuals in the group no longer have the same shared backgrounds, perspectives, and life experiences, those emerging differences can generate friction, discomfort (not unlike the discomfort that can come with sudden silence), and even conflict.

This is not an entirely novel insight. Indeed, diversity and inclusion training focuses on reducing conflict, promoting respect, minimizing offense, and lowering liability. Implicit in diversity and inclusiveness training is that diversity and friction can go together.

All of those DEI objectives – from reducing the conflict to lowering liability – reflect laudable goals. But achieving them cannot come at the cost of eliminating friction. 

A diverse organization can’t and shouldn’t try to eliminate friction for two reasons:

First, friction is inevitable in any group – and the more diverse the group becomes, the more potential friction arises. Denying friction in a diverse organization is akin to Victorians denying sex. It doesn’t go away; it just comes out in other, unexpected, and possibly counterproductive ways.

Second, and more importantly, friction is good. Friction represents one of the main benefits an organization realizes when it becomes more diverse. Academic research has focused on how diversity plays an essential role in counteracting groupthink. But volumes of literature also reveal how resisting groupthink creates conflict.

Having diverse backgrounds and perspectives can help an organization escape the cognitive straightjacket of conformism. Diverse perspectives fuel creativity.

But too often, when DEI advocates link diversity to creativity, they forget how creativity – the dynamic paradigm-shifting kind of creativity  – comes into the world.  It doesn’t come from calm, blissed-out, perfectly quiet conditions. And neither does it come from solitary, heroic individuals acting alone – despite centuries of myth-making in Western European Art. It comes from tension and friction – ideas and people rubbing against each other. It comes from conflicting visions of how the world works coming into contact. These collisions generate heat but also light.

Resistance to group thinking and fueling an organization’s creative resurgence are part of the diversity & inclusion’s selling points. Organizations stagnate without friction. They become sterile, boring, conformist, and risk-averse. Or the friction erupts, but without warning, in the form of conflicts that can sap morale, cause talent to leave, or even create legal threats, public relations disasters, or customer relations nightmares.

It would be a grave mistake to deny friction in a diverse organization. Organizations that try –by designing d&I programs to eliminate friction and conflict – risk sacrificing the promise of diversity, the core benefit that diversity offers.

An effective organization thus needs to ask not how to eliminate friction but how to foster the right kind and amount of friction.

That cannot be a top-down project. Instead, an organization’s workforce must cultivate the positive dimensions of diversity and diversity-based friction, which requires continuous learning alongside fellow workers and constant negotiation with those colleagues.

Organizations need to figure out how to catalyze this continuous learning and cultivate constant negotiations to harness the friction that comes from diversity.

How does this kind of continuous learning and constant negotiation come about?

Think about where everyone learns their most fundamental lessons about friction.

How and where do we learn the most basic lessons of dealing with people who are not exactly like us?

The answer is both simple and profound. Our interpersonal toolkits– particularly our approaches to conflict and collaboration– are shaped most in the first years of school.

And so I am going to take a risk with my talk and propose we return to school.

I am about to present five lessons borrowed from the school setting.

Organizations can look to some of their everyday experiences in school to learn how to generate and manage the positive kind of friction – constructive, generative friction – that comes from diversity.  These five lessons can help your organization and workforce learn how to harness friction from diversity.

Before I jump into these lessons, note that I use the word “learn.” I do not use the word “teach.”  Why does that word choice matter?

Because so much recent academic research on education and pedagogy has focused on what makes students learn a complex subject.  The best teachers don’t deliver or download knowledge.  Instead, they provide scaffolding so that students construct their knowledge.

And this is true in the setting of workplace diversity too.

Indeed, the ultimate knowledge of fostering positive friction from an organization’s diversity – the kind that creates a fire that fuels the organization rather than burns it down – comes from the organization’s workers.  It doesn’t come from management.  And it doesn’t come from d&I consultants or academic experts.

This knowledge needs to be constructed by the workforce, not downloaded.  Managers will have to trust that workers have to figure out for themselves how diversity creates constructive friction and how to manage and harness that friction.

Think of the best classes you have ever had.  They likely worked because you were given an intellectual toolkit but then pushed to learn – to make the cognitive connections yourself.

By contrast, think about the worst DEI training you’ve ever been to.  Or, even better, think of that episode on the t.v. comedy The Office, where Michael, the office manager, led his diversity training.   Diversity & inclusion lectures often devolve into a class where neither pupils nor students want to be.

So let’s borrow from the best parts of the school to help organizations learn.

Now, you will have to bear with me.  These ideas address conflict in a way that may seem self-conscious or even corny.  But that is by design.  Charged topics like diversity and conflict can often best be approached indirectly.  It lowers the stakes for everyone involved.  It also helps the learning feel less like a chore.

So I propose we be playful in learning how diversity creates friction and how that friction can ignite an organization.

Play is so essential to humans and animals.  It is how our young brains develop the patterns and tools we will need for the rest of our lives.  It is also how we learn about conflict.  Play is thus deadly serious.

Play is also – obviously – joyful.   And that is very appropriate for diversity and the positive friction it brings.   When we talk about “celebrating diversity,” why is it that diversity so often seems like an imposition or an obligation?  Diversity and the friction that comes with it should not just be solemn and sonorous but playful and joyous.

Now – at long last, here are five lessons to ignite that learning on how diversity generates constructive friction and how to harness that friction.

Lesson 1: Building a Better Brainstorming Session

In another lifetime, about ten years ago, I taught a business planning course at a law school.  Let me set the stage.  I had a lesson plan for drafting a limited liability company operating agreement for a startup business with three founders.  Each founder brought something very different to the table — money, expertise, or intellectual property.  But in the hypothetical problem set, the objectives of the three clients didn’t mesh easily.  The various jigsaw puzzle pieces – how the voting was done, how profits and losses were split, the tax planning, etc.- just didn’t fit together.

This problem reflected my experience as a corporate lawyer.  But for all my experience, I was stressed prepping the class because I couldn’t come up with the answers.

So I flipped the class on its head and had the students brainstorm the entire course on how to structure the business. They were very frustrated at first.  “Are you just hiding the ball on us?” one student asked. “What is the answer?”

But then they caught on that this wasn’t a game.  Or rather, it was a game, but it was the exact type of game they would have to play in real-life legal practice.  And, as tense as negotiating a startup’s founding documents, the process could also be great fun. It allowed for great creativity.

So here is what I propose. The next time you plan on doing a diversity and inclusion session, ditch the lecture and do a group exercise.  But do it as a brainstorming session.

Here are a few pointers:

Pointer number 1: Start with a low-stakes exercise – something upon which the company’s fate does not hinge.  Something far away from an immediate task that your talented workforce must tackle in the following weeks or months.

For example, think about a marketing exercise to design a new ad campaign r the company.

Pointer number 2: Break the team into groups.  But curate the groups so folks who collaborate less often must work together. Frame it as breaking the ice in the organization.  But it will also be about diversity.  The truth is that even in relatively diverse organizations, the variety is not spread evenly across different units.

Pointer number 3: Create a deep space for brainstorming. Here we can learn how some of the most outstanding Negotiation teachers teach the subject.  In Negotiations classes at Harvard Law School, they have built a curriculum based upon the book Getting to Yes and the work of Roger Fisher.  The curriculum teaches several tools to help individuals avoid negotiations getting frozen into positional, zero-sum bargaining – “I want X, you want Y.  Let’s lock horns and see who backs down.”

Here is one tool that the Harvard folks use.  They seek to explicitly orient negotiation sessions towards “getting hard on the problem, not on the people.”  In other words, when people come into a project with differing viewpoints and different interests, they can turn the problem into a joint enemy, not each other.

As an aside: that’s a compelling idea for managing friction that comes from diversity or just friction that comes from daily interactions in the workplace – get hard on the problem, not on the people.

A second tool that I borrow from my law school days is to set ground rules so that an initial negotiation stage has to be a good brainstorming session. What do I mean by that?  At an early stage, everyone should focus on generating ideas without judging or evaluating them. In other words, mandate true spit-balling. This shouldn’t be that unfamiliar to this audience.  One person, the reporter, writes down ideas with a sharpie or magic marker on a poster board, while everyone else faces the reporter and yells out free-wheeling ideas.

Every group member must get a chance to put forward their idea.

It is also crucial to defer that judgment and evaluation until later.  This is a lot more challenging than it sounds.  It is hard to resist those critical – quote-unquote “realistic” or “pragmatic” — voices in each of our heads (“oh lord, that will never work.”).

But deferring judgment is the key to brainstorming.  It’s the key to creativity.  It is also the key to managing diversity and the friction it brings.

Because that deferral of judgment is the original “safe space.”  “Safe space” is a term that is simultaneously very much in vogue, particularly on campus, and also very much mocked.

So if that term has too much baggage for your organization and any exercise you do, drop it.  Instead, focus on ground rules like “deferring judgment” or “postponing evaluation.”

Of course, at some point, every organization needs to leave pure brainstorming and turn to evaluation and to choosing options.

But here is the thing.  When you debrief at the end of this exercise for your organization, ask the teams: “which part was your favorite?”  I am willing to bet a lot of money that many participants will answer that they most enjoyed the part of a brainstorming session that was the most “freewheeling” and the most free from judgment

And then you can ask – don’t tell and certainly don’t mansplain – whether there are lessons the organization and the team members can draw from that judgment-free space.

Did it encourage more openness and creativity?

Did you hear from voices that you might not otherwise have heard from?

Did folks bring to the table surprising insights?

You can then ask – whether this brainstorming has many implications for your organization’s diversity and inclusiveness?  Does encouraging more interaction with new team members yield benefits?  Was there a value in promoting more voices to be heard?  Was there a value in deferring judgment and critical analysis?  How did the group manage to evaluate the different brainstorming ideas and the creation of a proposal?

Don’t answer the question yourself.  As with that law school class I taught years ago, the point is not the answer, and it is undoubtedly better if you don’t present yourself as having the “right” answer – if there is such a thing.

Lesson 2: Teaching Negotiation

The second lesson builds off the first—my brainstorming guide was created from negotiation theory lessons.

A diverse organization could go in and offer negotiation classes to its teams.  Every team could benefit because all of a business’s operations – and every part of our modern lives – involve negotiations. Negotiation is part of the daily business for even those parts of an organization that you might not think of as having to negotiate regularly – such as the back office.

Because we negotiate not just with an organization’s external counter-parties and constituencies.  We also arrange within our organizations (as well as within our families and personal relationships) all the time.

And that means negotiation lessons can help individuals and teams navigate some of the thorniest and most electrified issues an organization faces, including those involving diversity.

It may take a brave manager to offer negotiation classes to her/his/their teams.  I know what you are thinking.   Why wouldn’t people use those negotiation skills against me?  Wouldn’t they be better at asking for a salary raise?

Maybe they would, but consider two things.

First, a good negotiation class might make any tense negotiation, including on salary, work better for all sides involved – with all sides feeling they escaped a zero-sum trap.

Second, many negotiation courses focus explicitly on “difficult conversations,” which often include topics around diversity and inclusion. Indeed, many negotiation programs, including Harvard’s Program on Negotiation, offer course materials – including books and simulations that focus on the challenges and opportunities that diversity brings to organizations.

Here is a bottom line: if we can become better negotiators.  If we can broaden our toolkit, then we can become better in our professional and personal lives.  We can become organizations that can realize more of the benefits of diversity and the friction it generates.

Lesson 3:  Show and Tell

This lesson may seem quaint or even corny but bear with me.  All of you remember “show and tell” days from school.  Reinventing this for the workplace can provide valuable lessons in diversity and help manage friction.

Here is a primary assignment for your next team gathering.  Ask each team member to bring an object from childhood or young adulthood that has special meaning for them.  They can then present the thing to the group and explain its place in their lives.

This will require a bit of vulnerability from each team member.  But the flip side of that vulnerability can be a revelation about some part of that person’s background and identity.

The object may have little to do with a person’s racial, ethnic, or gender identity.  Maybe it will.  The point is that the person chooses what part of her/his/their identity to share.

What does this have to do with conflict and friction?  It is simple.  It is easier to give people a measure of grace – even when work gets heated – when you feel you know them and where they are coming from.

Revelation may not happen immediately or all the time.  That’s ok.  You can’t force it.  But like the best show and tell days at school, it can be pretty magical when revelation does come.

Some team members may even want to take this to the next level by bringing a special guest to show & tell.  We’ve all heard of “take your daughter to work” day.  But what would be even more revelatory would be to “take your parent, grandparent, or sibling to work.”

Of course, not everyone will have a family member available.  And for some people, like me, bringing a mother to the office would be courting disaster.

But if a team member did feel up to this challenge, it would give her/his/her coworkers a good sense of where she/he/they come from.  Humanizing our co-workers makes it hard to pigeonhole or stereotype them. It means friction comes out as a controlled burn rather than a raging wildfire.

Lesson 4: Assembly

One of the hallmarks of elementary and high school is an assembly.  So, one of the hallmarks of d&I programs is guest speakers.

But there are guest speakers, and there are guest speakers.

Here is my advice: ditch the lecture format.  And don’t choose a DEI speaker that focuses on diversity and inclusion.

Instead, pick an artist.  It could be a writer, musician, painter, sculptor, or dancer.  Or better yet, a group of artists that work together.  The main criteria for picking an artist: find someone who brings together very different cultural influences or ideas that do not seem to harmonize very easily.

Then interview the artist about how she/he/they found inspiration. How do they work through the tensions between different source materials?

How do artists manage creative differences if it is a group of artists?

I love those documentaries where you see the musicians and artists at work.  You see the genius coming out – and it usually isn’t an easy birth.  I love the art that comes from collisions and friction.

This is, I believe, a very American attitude towards art.  Think about how all the great American music forms: jazz, bluegrass, rock, rap – you name it – have come from a well-fed by multiple cultural springs.

At the very worst, the “assembly” will be an exciting tour through the creative process.  If one worker gets a creative spark, that is worth it.

But when this idea takes flight, your teams will see the metaphoric connection between diversity, friction, and creativity in living color.

Lesson 5: Advanced Brainstorming

For my final lesson, let’s go back to lesson one – the brainstorming session.

But this time, don’t pick a low-stakes assignment.  Pick a project or question more crucial to the organization’s long-term success.

But otherwise, everything should stay the same – curated groups and brainstorming sessions where judgment and critical analysis are deferred.

The one difference – this assignment matters.  The stakes are higher, and so are the consequences for individuals and their egos.

This is where the rubber hits the road.

But it is also where we see the true payoff from diversity.

Because if we truly believe the research – that diversity reduces groupthink and contributes to the creativity and dynamism of an organization – then we have to make diversity and inclusion a part of the lifeblood of an organization.  Part of the “bet the company” decisions.  Part of the long-term strategy.

Diversity is about friction.  And that friction can provide the power of an organization.

And that dynamism, that creativity is crucial to an organization’s success.  Not just on the week of Juneteenth, but on all the other 51 weeks of the calendar.

This piece originally appeared on Andrea Guendelman’s Newsletter, and was published here with permission.

Andrea Guendelman

Andrea Guendelman

Andrea Guendelman is a writer, speaker and entrepreneur who specializes in Expansive Leadership—helping individuals and organizations unlock potential through openness. She is a leading force in creating platforms for minority professionals and the tech industry. Through her own experiences as a Harvard-trained corporate lawyer and an entrepreneur, she co-created Bevisiblelatinx, Wallbreakers and most recently, Speak_ – a solution to connect talented computer science majors from universities across the country with companies hungry for talent and looking to build inclusive teams. Through her deep and varied background, Andrea has come to embody an inspiring and unique kind of alchemy, fluidly transitioning between the worlds of business and spiritual growth. Her strength derives from the intersection of these forces and allows her to bring a unique energy and mindfulness forged with a keen business acumen to her work, the speaking stage, and to those around her. Andrea has curated major conferences and festivals on social entrepreneurship, technology, and diversity, drawing hundreds or thousands of individuals, and speakers and performers ranging from Al Gore to Devendra Banhart. Earlier in her career, Andrea worked as a finance lawyer at the international law firm of Debevoise and Plimpton and at the Export-Import Bank of the United States. Andrea earned law degrees from Harvard Law School and the University of Chile. She is in the Executive MBA program at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. Andrea has received significant media exposure and is considered a thought leader in the topics of Latinx career building and creating diverse workforces.

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