It’s what makes the melting pot that is the United States successful. Diverse backgrounds, histories, experiences, thoughts, opinions, talents, and traits, amongst a slew of other things, are what lead to success on teams and in organizations. Our military formations and organizations are snapshots of the beautifully blended American mosaic. Bringing everyone together in harmony isn’t as simple as handshakes, backslaps, and hoping people will get along, nor is it right or even feasible to order someone to do so or think that connections will foster simply because you’re in the same space. Add in the responsibility to push and/or bring folks up the ladder and we seemingly have a much more daunting task, especially if we don’t have much in common. Mentorship across the spectrum of gender, ethnicity, rank, specialty, and other “domains of difference”, if you will, is undoubtedly difficult. Hopefully here we can agree that it’s not impossible if we realize the many benefits and consider a few pointers.
A recent article entitled A Hidden Benefit of Cross-Race/Culture Mentoring: How Diversity Makes Us Smarter in “The Chronicle of Evidence-Based Mentoring” outlines some very important benefits to mentoring across domains of difference. Author Katherine Phillips notes that:
- Decades of research by organizational scientists, psychologists, sociologists, economists and demographers show that socially diverse groups (that is, those with a diversity of race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation) are more innovative than homogeneous groups.
- It seems obvious that a group of people with diverse individual expertise would be better than a homogeneous group at solving complex, non-routine problems. It is less obvious that social diversity should work in the same way—yet the science shows that it does.
- The fact is that if you want to build teams or organizations capable of innovating, you need diversity. Diversity enhances creativity. It encourages the search for novel information and perspectives, leading to better decision making and problem solving.
What we find is that members of homogeneous groups simply believe that they will agree, understand each other’s perspectives, and easily come to a consensus. There are benefits there, no doubt. But when group members notice that they are socially different these expectations change – we anticipate differences of opinion and assume that we will have to work harder to build consensus. Simply put, people work harder in diverse environments, both cognitively and socially. We might not like it, but the additional “hard work” leads to potentially better outcomes. Further research on cross-race mentoring finds that social stigmas associated with racism and other “-isms” can be relieved due to a growth in understanding of difference prodded by protracted interaction. Our federal government also understands the national security benefits to diversity, stating that “the military’s diverse strategic interests around the globe require its men and women to be comfortable and effective working in a variety of cultural contexts to be able to effectively interact with and influence people from diverse locations and cultures.” The science and benefits are there, but how do we get to the action step of engaging those who don’t look like us?
First, expand your definition of diversity. You can be a white guy from the suburbs of Philly and be markedly different than a white guy from southern Cali – you grew up in two distinct cultures! But take it a step further and don’t just think race or gender when it comes to diversity. Think intellect, specialty, rank, marriage statues, sexuality, and as many other distinct difference domains you can come up with. In the military sector often times we are assigned our teammates – we can’t pick or adjust who we have, but we CAN adjust how we interact, engage, learn from and empower those around us.
Second, look at who you currently mentor and who mentors you. Who are you proactively connecting with, and who is connecting with you? What are your personal criteria for seeking developmental relationships? Do they need to adjust slightly to be more inclusive? Have you recognized any personal biases or schemas that may be self-limiting? Try to reflect on these questions to see if you could diversify who you emulate as well as who you develop.
Lastly, look at your organization. What’s the diversity across the team, in both leadership and subordinate roles? Is there a clear majority type of individual? Are minority teammates purposefully or unknowingly consolidated in certain sections or are they spread out amongst the larger organization? Do they work in places or have jobs that you or other leaders don’t frequent or have a responsibility to connect to? Can you reorganize to better leverage the talent, diversity, and human capital in your organization? Opportunities may abound around you that have previously gone unnoticed.
Of note, as a minority I can’t discount the importance of connecting with someone who looks like me or is from a similar upbringing as my own. There can be an automatic feeling of understanding that is quickly reachable, and by default comfortable. When I was a part of West Point’s staff and faculty, I took on the added responsibility of being the Professional Development Chair for Excel Scholars, a program dedicated to pinpointing, recruiting and developing under-represented minority cadets for leadership positions within the Corps of Cadets, ensuring their continued excellence in all pillars of both academic and personal life, and preparing them for competitive application to graduate level scholarships. As one of the few staff and faculty who looked like me, I took that very important role seriously. However, that doesn’t mean I shunned my responsibility to teach, coach and mentor young ladies, majority males, and LGBTQ cadets. They’d all graduate to an Army diverse in personnel, so it was my responsibility to ensure that I did what I could for every cadet, but if I couldn’t, it also became my responsibility to connect them with another leader to ensure WE, as a team, set them up for developmental success. Truth be told, the mentor I go to the most isn’t in my occupational specialty, isn’t my race, isn’t from my hometown, has vastly different interests, etc. – but he is greatly invested in all aspects of my life. The key here is 1) recognizing your subconscious tendency to gravitate towards those like you, 2) help others see it too and 3) diversify your developmental mentors AND protégés to ensure we are properly preparing ourselves AND the next generation.
We can’t ignore our current issues with diversity, as #BlackLivesMatter and #AllLivesMatter recognize the challenges we still face as a society. But we also can’t ignore that our country was built upon the ideas of diversity of choice, free will and individualism. We all come from a host of early immigrants, which allow us today to be the melting pot of diversity that breeds American innovation, insight, and leadership. Our military pulls voluntary sons and daughters from this pot, from vastly different sectors of society, and puts us into a professionally unparalleled community of practice. In order to stay relevant on the world stage leaders will continually need to diversify who they connect to and who they decide to propel to the next level to carry the torch. We’ll all take the uniform off one day; ensure that you are involved in the development of those that replace you even if they don’t look, act or think like you.
Start a conversation. Spark a transformation.