“Strength lies in differences, not in similarities”

2012-09-27 06:13

Stephen Covey once wrote: “Strength lies in differences, not in similarities”. A profound statement indeed, however in many places of work in South Africa diversity is regarded as a stumbling block and even a backward phenomenon. These perceptions often surface in decision making processes and during interactions between people of various backgrounds which can lead to ill-feelings, division and even ethnic conflict.

In addition, external agencies such as the print and electronic media often exacerbate tension and fuel distrust between different ethnic communities. By sensationalising particular issues, especially those originating from ethnic or cultural rivalry, differences between people are constantly misconstrued as the source of such rivalry. Not only does it feed the habit of stereotyping particular communities, but it also undermines important constitutional imperatives such as the advancement of social cohesion and dignity.

The working environment is unfortunately not immune to societal trends. Stereotyping the ‘other’ and perceptions about others are carried into organisations and greatly influence the attitude and behaviour of individuals in the workplace.

This poses a particular challenge to the human resources department whose task it is to maximise the workforce’s productivity and to foster harmony in the working environment. Such challenges are however not insurmountable. For Joseph Sugarman, a prominent American entrepreneur points out: "Each problem has hidden in it an opportunity so powerful that it literally dwarfs the problem. The greatest success stories were created by people who recognized a problem a turned it into an opportunity."

However, in order to translate challenges into opportunities for development and growth, it is necessary for the following paradigm shift to take place: Diversity is not a stumbling block or a backward phenomenon, but it is something real and valuable, and if properly managed and developed to be a great asset to the company and its future.

Everyone employed by the company, including top management, the board of directors and shareholders must embrace the aforementioned paradigm and commit themselves to an on-going process aimed at embracing, fostering and valuing diversity.

A good starting point for such a process could be a range of projects aimed at recognizing and acknowledging the different languages spoken in the work place. Management could consider putting up signs in the work place in three or four languages. Pamphlets containing lists of similar technical terms used daily on the factory floor can be printed in various languages. Allowing employees to use their mother tongue during a disciplinary hearing or to be trained in their mother tongue would help to build their self-esteem and would over time serve to lay a firm foundation for enhanced second language communication, in mediums such as English. Celebrating UNESCO’s International Mother Tongue Day annually would also serve as a great opportunity to develop a common understanding of the value of different languages.

Other projects should be aimed at promoting tolerance and a deeper understanding of indigenous cultural practices. Workshops could be held to brief people about certain practices and its significance for those who participate in it. Not only would this help to dispel ignorance, but it would also set those who are not familiar with a specific custom or cultural practice on a new pathway of discovery. In fact there is certainly no greater discovery than realising you possess more similarities than differences.

Wade Davis, a Canadian anthropologist, ethnobotanist and author on worldwide indigenous cultures said the following: “If diversity is a source of wonder, its opposite - the ubiquitous condensation to some blandly amorphous and singularly generic modern culture that takes for granted an impoverished environment - is a source of dismay. There is, indeed, a fire burning over the earth, taking with it plants and animals, cultures, languages, ancient skills and visionary wisdom. Quelling this flame, and re-inventing the poetry of diversity is perhaps the most important challenge of our times.”

Indeed by acknowledging, advancing and valuing diversity in the work place we not only invest in human capital, but we also secure an earth abundant with life and resources for future generations. This is what is called a lasting legacy.

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