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On Diversity

Authored by LTC Andre H. Sayles. | June 1998

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Introduction.

Organizations across America are continuing to address issues related to living and working in a culturally diverse environment. Currently, the Army is addressing diversity by implementing the Consideration of Others Program. This effort originated at the U.S. Military Academy during the early 1990s, and was subsequently adopted by the Military District of Washington. Since diversity is a theme for the U.S. Army War College Class of 1998, I offer this letter in support of the Consideration of Others Program and as a culmination to our continuous dialogue on diversity throughout the past 9 months. I hope to encourage you to return to the mainstream of service to our nation with a positive outlook on the value of diversity and an understanding of how we can build on that value to the benefit of both the individual and the organization.

Summary.

As leaders, we are asked to establish a long-term vision for our organization and to point our subordinates in the direction of that vision. A realistic projection for diversity in the Army is that we will need to achieve total integration early in the next century. Our approach to diversity should be based on the ?same but different" concept. We will need to expect our service members to become the same within the organizational culture while the organization recognizes that individuals need to hold onto some of their differences.

I can see three levels to my suggested approach to building an effective, diverse environment. At the first level, the organization recognizes the need to expect people to be the same, while respecting their differences. At the second level, the organization uses programs like Consideration of Others to help members understand differences and learn to treat others the way they want to be treated. At the third level,the organization recognizes the value of differences and makes use of the alternative perspectives to create the best possible working environment.

For clarity, I will briefly outline these three levels. The first level is a decision to buy into the ?same but different? concept. We must accept the argument that total assimilation will never lead to the best possible environment for our subordinates. If we ask our soldiers to completely give up who they are in order to become the same as our organizational culture, the backlash will eventually show itself in the form of discontent and frustration. At the same time, as leaders we must expect our subordinates to take pride in the organization and adapt to its culture. At this level we simply want to recognize that there needs to be a balance between adaptation to the organizational culture and respect for individual differences.

After buying into the ?same but different? concept, we can move to the second level by beginning to understand how we are different. Initially, we need to focus on the key differences of ethnicity, gender, and religion. An effective approach to understanding differences is already built into the Consideration of Others Program. Simply talking and listening in a small group setting will go a long way. We must keep in mind that our road to sensitivity is always under construction. We can never be perfect. As we work harder to understand differences, we will become comfortable with our daily interactions. We will understand how others want to be treated. We will begin to sense when others want to be treated the same and when they want us to respect their differences.

At the third level of diversity management, we have already accepted the ?same but different? concept and have achieved a basic understanding of differences. Eventually, we will become comfortable with those who are of a different gender, ethnicity, or religion. Our reduced inhibitions will allow us to appreciate diversity. Those strange opinions and unorthodox approaches to problems that come with diversity will no longer be dismissed without discussion. Instead, they will be considered alongside traditional views. We will begin to value diversity and incorporate alternative approaches into our ways of doing business. We will be effectively managing diversity.

This approach to diversity applies to other organizations as well as the Army.5 We need to understand where we are headed, but know that we cannot get there in a day or a few years. Our goal is to build an integrated environment in which each person can work to his or her potential while knowing that accomplishments will be recognized and due promotion opportunities will be granted. Men, women, majorities, and minorities will better understand each other and learn to work with each other to the extent that they will become interchangeable. Simply stated, we will be able to treat others the way they should be treated.

ENDNOTES

5. The ?same but different? concept can be applied at many levels in many different organizations. In an international setting, we would like to see different nations treating each other with respect and dignity. Understanding differences is critical to that process since respect and dignity takes on different meanings in different cultures. Our ability to shape the international environment and spread American values depends on our understanding of how other cultures are the same as the American culture and how they are different. Effective diversity programs in the Army will give our soldiers a better foundation for understanding how to operate in the international arena.