VENTURING OUT ONTO THE DIVERSITY MINEFIELD

A couple of years back, I was an audience member for a presentation made by a company’s Director of Diversity and Inclusion, hereinafter referred to as the DD&I.

Now, I have been around long enough to know that when discussing a topic like Diversity and Inclusion, saying anything that falls so much as a millimeter short of unalloyed praise is a bit like rolling out the old Slip ‘N Slide onto a mine field.  It could work out ok, but it might be wiser to seek out terrain on which you can be more confident that all of your body parts will continue to reside in the same zip code. 

Be that as it may...at one point in his presentation, the DD&I gestured toward the screen on which his slides were being projected and said words intended to communicate the common phrase “as you can see.”  And while he did utter those four words, he decided that it would be a good idea to interpolate ten more.  More specifically, what he said was this:  “And as those of you who are fortunate enough to be sighted can see...”

Had the Joint Chiefs of Staff paraded down the aisle at that moment and proceeded to serenade us with a medley of ABBA’s greatest hits, I don’t think it would have been any more distracting than what the DD&I had said.  Instead of focusing on what I, someone indeed fortunate enough to be sighted, could see, I was instead thinking:  “Wait...what?!!”  As an intellectual proposition, I understood the point he was trying to make.  And had there been a blind* person or two in the room, it might have been worth making.  But under the circumstances, it was a very discordant note.

As it happens, I had a good working relationship with the DD&I, so later that day I sought him out in his office.  After a few opening pleasantries, I asked if he would be willing to accept some constructively intended feedback.  He said that he was, and I’m sure he meant it.

Me:  “That wording you used in today’s presentation: ‘those of you fortunate enough to be sighted’...

DD&I:  “Yes?  What about it?”

Me:  “Once you said that, you lost me.”

DD&I:  “Really?  Why?”

Me: “It sounded as though you were saying, ‘Everybody listen to how politically correct I am now being.’”

DD&I:  “John, I’ve been saying that in presentations for a long time, and you’re the first person who has every said that it was distracting.”

Me: “I may be the first person who’s said it, but I promise you that I’m not the first person who has thought it.”

DD&I:  “Well, we have to bear in mind that not everyone is the same as everyone else.”

Me:  “Then what about people who weren’t fortunate enough to be ‘hearing-ed’?  Shouldn’t you have had someone standing next to you who could sign the bit about being fortunate enough to be sighted?”

I’ll stop here.  Suffice it to say that he was not persuaded.  (Or pleased.)  But the point to be made for our purposes is that here was a good, well-intentioned, intelligent man who was so focused on the mechanics of what he was doing—the need to shoe-horn in an object lesson—that he lost sight of** the impact he was making on the people he wanted to influence.

This sort of thing happens all the time when we’re dealing with something as abstract/intangible as diversity—or, for that matter, engagement, trust, empowerment, and respect.  Keep that in mind.  Don’t let the mechanics get in the way of your real objectives and things should go better for you--assuming, that is, you're fortunate enough to be go-able.

JG

*Yes, I used the word “blind.”  It’s a perfectly good word, one that is inoffensive to anyone who is not hell-bent on seeking out reasons to take offense.

**Ironic, no?