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Dealing with Differences at Work

Dealing with Differences at Work
By Michael Kimmel, Courtesy of Just for Men

The workplace of the 21st century hardly resembles your father’s workplace. Diversity is the new calling card of corporate America, and men who learn how to navigate this new workplace most effectively today are likely to be the corporate leaders of tomorrow.

The dramatic demographic shifts in American society have led to an unprecedented entry of different groups of men and women into the workplace. Each new ethnic group changes more than the group photo at the corporate picnic -- they change the workplace.

Put most simply, men are different from each other. Popular wisdom that we’re all from Mars hasn’t considered the remarkable diversity of men in the workplace here on planet Earth. And getting through those differences, understanding different groups of men, is what will enable some men to emerge as real leaders in their companies and communities.

Diversity in Today’s Workplace

Men differ from each other by race, class, sexuality, age, religion and more. In the past, management often viewed those differences as dangerous, a source of conflict.

In the workplaces of the 21st century, management understands that these differences -- when managed properly -- can be a wellspring of significant innovations.

Those companies that successfully embrace diversity within a context of equality are those companies best positioned to be successful in the new global marketplace.

Consider this recent bit of research on workplace productivity. A study examined two dimensions of workplace culture: level of conflict among employees (disagreements about strategies and corporate policies) and level of respect among employees. You might think companies that are thriving are those with high levels of respect and low levels of conflict, places where everyone gets along and agrees about everything.

You’d only be half right. True, the companies that do worst are those with high conflict and low respect -- no one gets along with anyone else and no one feels respected. But companies that exhibit low conflict and high respect do modestly well, but they don’t soar. People are, it turns out, too similar in their perspectives, and while everyone feels valued, they feel valued for how alike they all are.

The most successful companies turn out to be the ones with the highest levels of respect and moderate to high levels of conflict. In those companies, people feel freer to argue, to disagree and know that they are respected as equally valued members of the team. Diversity, only within a context of respect, turns out to inspire the highest levels of productivity.

What You Can Do

So how can you succeed in this diverse corporate America? Keep these three points in mind:

  • Be Informed: Obviously, you need to become aware of the differences among different groups of men, as well as the differences between women and men. The Internet and your local bookstore are overflowing with material on how race, ethnicity or sexuality “work” in our society. 
  • Be Self-Aware: Even if you are white, straight, middle-aged, middle-class and Protestant doesn’t mean you have no ethnic identity. Where are your people from? What ethnicity are you? 
  • Be Aware of Those Around You: Does anyone in your family have a disability? Do you know someone who is gay or lesbian? Are any close friends from high school from a different race or ethnicity or a completely different background than you?

The key to successfully dealing with difference is understanding that the world is not divided into them -- those who are different -- and us -- those who are not. We’re all them.

[Professor Michael Kimmel is a sociologist who is among the leading researchers and writers on men and masculinity in the world today and the author or editor of more than 20 volumes, including his latest, Guyland.]

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