Let’s be clear. You cannot lead in today’s global economy if you cannot negotiate diversity deftly. The key question: Does your firm manage its diversity or does it “leverage difference?” Traditional diversity management is becoming a thing of the past. The new line of thinking advances the research-supported idea that firms must capitalize on the differences that matter most among employees to drive innovation and productivity. What distinguishes managing diversity from leveraging difference?

The book The End of Diversity as We Know It: Why Diversity Efforts Fail and How Leveraging Difference Can Succeed explains the different styles for addressing diversity.

The following is an excerpt from the book.

After Managing Diversity

Business bookshelves and academic journals are replete with titles about how to “manage diversity,” as though the inevitable reality is that once you put different people and perspectives together, anarchy will ensue and the chaos that develops will have to be managed! In fairness, all of us can probably remember being put together with someone quite different from us, and experiencing some disruption as a result. But there are also numerous examples of differences creating synergy and harmony. What if the most important leadership activity was actually to catalyze diversity, not just manage it? This question is at the core of the distinction between traditional managing diversity and leveraging difference.

Here is a refined picture of what distinguishes the two ways of looking at diversity.

Managing Diversity Versus Leveraging Difference

  Managing Diversity Leveraging Difference
Context Embedded in U.S. cultural and business context Applicable to multiple cultural and business contexts
Leadership Perspective Diversity is a problem to be solved Difference is an opportunity to be seized
Strategic Focus Emphasis on HR management to drive activity related to diversity Emphasis on enterprise strategy to drive outcomes related to difference
Scope of Difference Engaged Only a narrow set of differences are relevant Broader scope of differences may be relevant
Impact of Change Process Increase in representation of targeted differences. Higher overall levels of resistance to diversity change Increase in representation of strategically relevant differences. Lower levels of overall resistance to difference-based change

The discussion that follows in this book highlights the extreme characteristics of each frame. In reality, leaders and organizations may incorporate qualities from both frames, using one or the other in various arenas of organizational life. For example, an organization might use a leveraging difference frame in relation to customers while using the managing diversity frame in its talent management. But knowing the differences between the two frames is essential for understanding when one frame or the other is operating. The distinction also helps leaders understand how shifting from managing diversity to leveraging difference can create value.

Next Steps

The End of Diversity as We Know It: Why Diversity Efforts Fail and How Leveraging Difference Can Succeed shows practitioners how to shift from managing diversity to leveraging difference. These steps include the following:

  • First, identify differences that matter most in achieving firm goals (see difference).
  • Second, learn about those differences (understand difference).
  • Finally, experiment with how to use those differences to create results (engage difference).

You are leveraging difference when you are following these steps repeatedly — when it becomes second nature.

In an upcoming book, Embrace the Weird, I reveal how companies help employees thrive, especially when they don’t quite fit the norm. These people are frequently the source of great ideas that spur new ways of operating and help firms reinvent themselves. Ignore these individuals at your peril!

This post contains an excerpt from Darden Professor Martin Davidson’s bookThe End Of Diversity as We Know It: Why Diversity Efforts Fail and How Leveraging Difference Can Succeed (Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc., 2011)

About the Expert

Martin N. Davidson

Senior Associate Dean and Global Chief Diversity Officer; Johnson & Higgins Professor Business Administration

Davidson is an expert on global leadership with an emphasis on how to manage diversity to generate superior performance — an approach he pioneered called Leveraging Difference. He wrote the book on diversity in business, The End of Diversity as We Know It: Why Diversity Efforts Fail and How Leveraging Difference Can Succeed. He’s experienced in helping senior leaders develop the skills they need to thrive in global environments.

Davidson consults with a host of Fortune 500 firms, government agencies and social profit organizations. He has served as chief diversity officer for the Darden School, and as the national chair of the Gender and Diversity in Organizations Division of the Academy of Management. Davidson writes a blog called “In My Opinion,” found at www.leveragingdifference.com.

A.B., Harvard College; Ph.D., Stanford University