Sometimes people challenge me about being a diversity awareness trainer, especially on the specific topic of generational diversity.  They say that talking about various types of diversity is really just generalizing and stereotyping, and that we should simply have classes that teach people to respect each other rather than delving into the topic of what makes people different.

I’ve always disagreed.  But I read Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book this week, Outliers, and it crystalized the argument for me.

Gladwell is fascinating, as always.  His premise in this book is that the story of success in America–that a smart, talented person becomes successful despite humble beginnings through sheer hard work and perserverance–is a myth.  He traces a number of patterns through both individual and group success stories, including the Beatles, Bill Gates, Canadian soccer champions, Asian mathematicians and New York Jewish lawyers, and in each case he shows how their environment, the year they were born and the opportunities they happen to have been given were critical factors in their success.  Of course, they were all talented and hardworking too.  But that alone would not have been enough, Gladwell says.  Successful New York Jewish lawyers, for example, were often born in the 1930’s, a “demographic trough” in which the low birthrate gave them increased educational attention and job opportunities.  They were born of hardworking Jewish immigrants in the garment industry who taught them the value of initiative, independence and perserverance and were able to send them to college.   And perhaps most importantly, they were starting out in business at a time when the need for litigation attorneys was growing but high profile WASP firms wouldn’t touch litigation because it wasn’t “respectable.”  They were handed an opportunity that both earlier and later generations missed.

Gladwell’s point is that we need to recognize the patterns in opportunities that are handed to some and denied to others, and seek deliberately to create more opportunities for our children.  Perhaps the most fascinating part of the book for me, however, is the chapter about how cultural legacies can operate as a constraint.  The chapter traces the history of plane crashes and draws a parallel between pilots from high power distance cultures and pilot errors that lead to a crash.  In a high power distance culture, the captain is given the utmost respect and authority and his first officer and flight engineer do not question him.  Even if they have a safety concern, the most they will do is hint at it, which may or may not be interpreted correctly by a tired or stressed captain.  Thus the opportunity for real communication and teamwork is limited and a fatal mistake made by a pilot may not be corrected by the rest of the crew.

Gladwell traces the history of Korean Air, which went from an airline fraught with frequent disasters and downgraded by the FAA, to one of the safest airlines in the world.  How did they do it?  By recognizing that the cultural influences in the cockpit were anti-success factors and by not being afraid to tackle and change them.  The airline hired an American consultant (the US being one of the lowest power distance cultures) to work with them.  The first thing the consultant did was to improve the English language skills of the pilots, because English does not have the same built-in language constructs around hierarchy that the Korean language does.  Then he taught them to speak up, to challenge authority in the cockpit, even to grab the joystick from the captain in situations where safety might be at stake.

So let’s take a step back here for a second.  As diversity trainers, we teach people to understand and respect difference, whether it be cultural, generational or what have you.  The idea that we would proclaim cultural traits as “bad” and try to change them is a touchy, sensitive subject.  It takes a framework like airline safety to make us think we can even have a conversation about the subject.  But I think the point here is that if we brush the idea of difference under the table, if we talk about simply respecting people who are different instead of learning about what makes them different, we miss critical opportunities for change and improvement.  To respect difference, we must identify and understand it.   We must find ways to leverage that diversity, such as when we seek the ideas of our Gen Y salespeople in order to understand how to tap into the Gen Y market, or we use our Hispanic engineers to help us design a product that appeals to the Hispanic consumer.   And in some cases, we may even need to recognize that certain kinds of difference do not work in certain kinds of environments.  It’s a controversial idea, and one that would be easy to abuse.  But I liken it to using the DISC model or another similar personality assessment tool to teach people that flexibility is key, and that sometimes you must adapt your preferred style to meet the needs of a particular situation.

What are your thoughts?  Is it useful to study types of difference such as generational influence and cultural legacy?  How else does it serve us in the workplace?


  1. Kari Bitzer

    I completely agree with the points you made. I understand the concept, if we just treat everyone with respect, we don’t need to understand what the differences are, but to me that isn’t realistic. Across cultures, genders, ages, etc. unless we understand why people function the way they do, we can’t adapt our behaviors for successful communication.

    A very simple example is maintaining eye contact when speaking with someone to show respect and interest. Understanding cultural and generational differences has helped me realize, people are not being disrespectful or disinterested, they simply operate differently when they don’t maintain eye contact. For some culture’s it is disrespectful to maintain eye contact. This may be over simplifying the discussion, but I am a firm believer in understanding as much as I can about the people I come in contact with and that understanding improves communication in almost all circumstances.