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Training with difference

Training with difference

MANAGEMENT SPEAK: quality is an

overhead expense and must be reduced.

TRANSLATION: management is an

unnecessary expense but we'll keep funding it.

- IS Survivalist Steve Jackson

I recently asked around to find out if anyone remembered the authors of a science fiction story titled The Political Engineer. A friend of mine, Patrick Berry, remembered reading it in an anthology of stories by Cyril Kornbluth and Frederik Pohl titled Critical Mass.

Lots of IS Survivalists see themselves as apolitical engineers treated poorly by politicised corporate cultures. So here's a question: what are you going to do about it?

You have three choices: leave, learn enough about corporate politics to avoid being victimised, or suffer. Pick one.

The problem my correspondents described - non-technical managers making technical decisions without involving the engineers - has nothing to do with politics, though. Not the good kind (figuring out how to move forward when legitimately different points of view collide) nor the bad (back-stabbing and hidden agendas). It may seem to be politics, but the problem is our natural tendency as human beings to trust and associate with those most like us. It's a lack of appreciation for diversity.

Think of the executive ranks of your company. Can you think of anyone who's there without any visible achievements? Think about the fast-trackers who aren't executives, but who obviously will be. What is it about them that makes them fast-trackers? Ability? Maybe.

In many businesses there's a sort of executive club. Some people belong to it. Others don't. Its members can spot each other from a distance. Non-members call it the old boys' network, but it's nothing of the kind. It's a club, and you're either a member or you're not.

It's depressingly like a high school clique, where you know who's in it and you know you're not. I suspect sociologists have written oodles of research papers on this subject (if not, it's fertile soil for some PhD candidate), but we don't need research papers.

We need a manual. Nobody has ever written a step-by-step instruction book for joining the clique.

That's why so much of today's diversity training is completely ineffectual. Although discrimination based on race and ethnicity still happens (and is inexcusable), far more comes from distrusting people with different thought patterns than skin colour. As a friend put it, lots of companies hire and promote people of all races, creeds and backgrounds, as long as they think alike. Real diversity comes from differing points of view, perspectives, priorities and values. Valuing real diversity is the antithesis of being part of the clique.

Did I say "the clique"? I meant "a clique" because there's more than one. Techies have cliques, too. So do most other identifiable groups. If you're part of a clique, you probably don't even recognise it. That changes nothing.

Are you in a clique?

How well do you look at the world from the other person's perspective when the other person doesn't think the way you do? Do you try to see the world through their eyes?

Or do you take the easy way out, applying a convenient label that trivialises or demonises a perspective that makes you uncomfortable?

"Aw, that's just politics!" means "you didn't make this decision the way I would have", just as much as "they're just techies - they don't think the way we do".

It's time for all of us to appreciate real diversity - and that means listening to those least like ourselves, and discovering how it is they perceive the world.

After all, listening to members of your own group is a whole lot like listening to yourself.

How much will you learn doing that?


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