The Ultimate Diversity is Each Individual, The Ultimate Inclusion is Each Unique Contribution to the Whole
The tendency to categorize, accompanied by the need to put people into their box, drives much of what goes on in our minds and then ultimately in management practice. Categories of people and their activity is an artificial, unvalidated idea — a distraction from inclusion, understanding, and diversity in most cases. There is a much better way to understand each human being and how they are an integral aspect of a community. In my decades of design and practice, I’ve partnered with businesses to achieve extraordinary results in this way, and I’ll be giving you tools to do the same.
The validity and value of my approach was recently confirmed in a decades-long study at Harvard School of Education. It found that there is no mathematical or organizing process for sorting human communities into natural groups that is valid or even useful — and that such attempts are likely destructive to understanding and inclusion. The culmination of the study is research work completed and organized into a book by Todd Rose. The End of Average is a scathing critique, which shows there is zero evidence to support efforts at categorizing people by type, approach to work, or racial heritage.
In fact, there is great evidence that seeing each individual uniquely has great payoffs. Any form of category, be it competencies, learning styles or way of working makes it difficult — and maybe even impossible — to see an individual for who they are and what they can bring. It works against individuals understanding and developing themselves as well. The greatest unifier is the process of seeing and engaging each human, discovering them as individuals — their singularity. One of One!
How does one achieve this? It feels like an overwhelming task. My practice with organizations for over 40 years has been to teach them how to design work and to develop people around what I call individual essence. It is that which, if everything else was taken away or lost, cannot be removed without losing who you are. This is not the same as one’s strengths, which can be built over time and relate mostly our ability to do, rather than our character and source of values.
When helping organizations to begin working with essence, I introduce three principles to guide the transition. Applying these principles works to elevate individuals and increase capacity across an organization, as I’ll show by sharing stories from businesses that have succeeded with essence. We’ll look at each principle in detail in the following sections, starting with designing work to enable individuals to express their essence.
Principle 1: Commit to work design that awakens Essence and gives individuals work to do that enables it expression
Stop teaching/testing to find out what category people fit in or how well they are doing in meeting an aspirational group-defined mastery. Set people to defining their own contribution to the strategic work of the business and creating a plan for how they will measure themselves and engage others in reflection on progress. These contributions need to be directed to changing the lives of stakeholders like customers, as designated by the organization market strategy. We’ll see in the following story from Seventh Generation how individual Essence translated into real benefits for their customers.
Seventh Generation Story
I always start with the founding executives, particularly in a startup or with growth stage entrepreneurs. Working with Jeffrey Hollender, founder of Seventh Generation, a producer of non-toxic household and personal care products, we found the three windows on him as a person that had been embedded in the business’s essence qualities. He truly lived from the pursuit of transparency and this was core to his way of being in the world. He also was compelled throughout his whole life to bring about social justice as well as expose systemic dissonance. This essence allowed us to refine product and service offerings and invite each person in the company to contribute how they wanted to within this context.
Bringing Essence to the Benefit of Stakeholders
The essence of the founder becomes the essence of the company by nature. It also awakens the personal essence of each employee if they are connected to it and are asked where they want to contribute. Essence in individuals is hidden when delegation and assignments happen. But it is alive and ready to work when people are asked to choose their contribution within the context of the essence of the business and its strategy.
Extending the story, a small group at Seventh Generation was inspired by the exploration of company essence to think how they could make transparency a differentiation. The team was made of up a surprising diversity of race, background, and skill. This was initiated from their own choice to contribute in the same place, coming from personal agency and personal essence. They immediately figured out how to work together to pull off this stretch goal for the organization. Collaborating to meet their overt promise to buyers they did not know brought them into a very enlivening relationship. Looking to implement transparency they examined the core of their different buyer-classes and found one group with chemical sensitivities and who mostly live in lower income neighborhoods. They all learned about the chemicals that caused irritation and health problems. Their first act was to put all ingredients on the label for all buyers to know what they were buying. This was not required and have never been done on a consumer product that was not food.
On the social justice side, another team at Seventh Generation found a California house cleaning company, WAGES, with all Hispanic women who were suffering from day in and day out use of toxic cleaning chemicals. The workers also had little control of their own work. Seventh Generation not only educated the cleaning company and workers about toxins and their health, they assisted in moving them toward a co-op business model where self-determination was increased. The creation of this new initiative led the team members who volunteered both to be involved and to bond over something they could service together, not just over learning to understand one another. That happened in the process, but the focus was on market changes using the essence of the business and how each member could contribute.
The teams reported that what really made it effective was that it focused on something they all served — customers. As the racially diverse teams worked side by side, they also looked at what they each brought to the team that was unique. It was part of the design of the process to reflect on the value of the different offerings. And what it took as a whole to make it happen. They found deep value in one another and why they needed one another to take on such significant changes. But all the team members learned about the lives of people of color and low income who were affected by sensitivity to product chemicals. It aroused empathy and put them “emotionally” on the same team. From there, they were able to create meaningful change both in the business, and in the lives of the people they served.
Principle 2: Design work so evolution of capacity is the direction and not achievement of preset competencies which categorize people
Wrapping the new capacity around the contributions that are promised by an individual, especially when the requirement is to be beyond their current capability with an intention to grow into that ability, provides the grounds for a developmental culture and paradigm of design. We’ll see this at work at a business that elevated capacity rapidly with exceptional outcomes for both the business and the communities it serves.
This story of success with essence comes from Colgate Palmolive in South Africa as apartheid in governing was beginning to be dismantled. The new constitution called on all corporations to shift the makeup of management of any organization to reflect the same percentage as the racial mix of the population at large. Colgate chose to initiate a deep engagement and development process where everyone in Colgate made a promise to implement the new strategy. They needed to build capacity in critical thinking and business practice to make this move to black managers making up 95 percent of management. White Africans were skeptical and concerned. Forcing it would have created a competitive divide. Instead, both groups started working together on challenging endeavors and were introduced to each other while they accomplished great work.
Colgate committed to projects that would help create the new South Africa in economic and governing terms as well as health, specifically oral health, which was the business they were in. They needed one another to build economic development for women in Soweto and Alexandria Townships, and to reverse decades of poor oral health care. They co-created a great business and a great city, Johannesburg, where they lived.
There was only one white African who left and did not fully engage. And within six months Colgate had met the five-year deadline with 95 percent black managers. No one was laid off or demoted. Nelson Mandela acknowledge this with an award. No company had an excuse any longer. Colgate had proved rapidly that it could be done. There was great pride, but more in how it had been done. Not by structure change, but by building capacity and capability and making a difference in their communities through the business.
Principle 3: Make on-going education and development core to the work of the organization
Organizations that do so have top talent in all people and inclusion in their organizational work practice. Seeking to include people by working around or dividing people among different types is destined to cause us to pay more attention to the divides. Working individually and collectively, with each member contributing their unique offering for the people the business serves, unifies. The organization can then work on promises to the market that are 10 times greater in demand and return.
Core to this development is building shared frameworks and a common language which has a unifying power beyond any one individual. The members of the organization are chartered to engage between themselves but also to go beyond that with their customers. The change in frameworks go from the individual to the nested connection, in which individuals are always looking out into their customer’s lives and serving them together as a whole. The language goes from self-actualization to systems actualization. It is bigger than any set of classifications. The language and frameworks are designed to disrupt patterns by breaking the categories and changing how members of an organization see each other in the world. It requires asking each of them to engage in something more meaningful, where every individual contribution is needed.
Essence is only discovered by a meta level exploration, where patterns of engagement are explored for an individual, most often in times of stress, struggle or when rising up in the face of the unknown. These are the times in which we discover more about ourselves at a core level. Without such rare examination, we look at what makes us happy, or where we have done well and been appreciated. By building shared frameworks and a common language of essence into an organization’s practice, such developmental reflections become a natural part of the work of the organization — and the benefits of self-guided, individual contributions are felt throughout.
Essence often feels like a foreign and strange idea when first encountered because we are so used to looking at people and seeking to find their type, their style, the category within which others fit — a category which is set and predetermined. It takes practice and a redesign of work to bring forward the singularity of each person and to see it included in the work to be done, where inclusion really shows up every day.
Originally published in AMA Quarterly Summer 2018.