Diversity and Spirituality

August 9, 2017

Diversity and Spirituality
©1995, Angelo John Lewis

As organizational development efforts aimed at managing diversity have become mainstream in recent years, this growth has been accompanied by the refining of what advocates call “the business case for diversity,” or the notion that the creation of a gender, culture, and sexual-orientation sensitive workforce is good for the bottom line. Demographic trends involving an infusion of minorities, women, and immigrants into the workforce; plus the increasing internationalization and globalization of business are among the many factors that are cited as reasons to embark on company-wide programs to increase workforce cross-cultural competence and sensitivity to individual and cultural differences. Although this emphasis on the business case will likely remain the main reason that corporations invest in diversity programs, one subtle consequence of this emphasis is that organizations may be more motivated by these economic considerations than the individuals within the organizations. The backlash that often accompanies the rollout of diversity programs seems to underscore this unintended reality. “I can understand, on a philosophical level, what diversity means for the corporation,” resistant majority-group member managers seem to be saying, “But I cannot understand what is in it for me.”

The need to give this hypothetical resistant manager a square answer to his or her question is one reason why a new philosophic underpinning for diversity work is needed, one which goes beyond the business (and even ethical) imperative and speaks to the needs of individuals who are the targets of diversity programs. Rather than supplanting the business case –which is the main reason corporate organizations are liable to adopt diversity programs in cash-short times –the new philosophical underpinning must add an additional, driving motivator for those whom are the end users of diversity programs. It must speak to individuals in much the same way that the business case speaks to organizational managers by answering the ultimate question: “what is in it for me?” This self-interest question can be answered because the heart of diversity work is about something much deeper than economics. True diversity work is not simply about adding to bottom lines, but about expanding individual horizons and broadening the notion of self. By helping individuals become less grounded in the constraints of their identity as determined by such factors as ethnicity, culture, or gender, we help them expand their notions of who they are. Diversity work, properly facilitated, can be said to be in an individual’s self -interest because it enables participants to become freer, more comfortable in any arena in which they find themselves. In this regard, diversity work is not just political or even educational work. In fact, it shares the agenda of and can be seen as a complement and counterbalance to spiritual work. I am aware that the word “spiritual” is a loaded term and to many implies religion, which is actually a culturally-based expression of spiritual values. But what I mean here is not religion, but spirituality in the broadest sense of the term. i.e. the development of higher moral values and the awareness of transcendental reality. I am making a connection between the goals of diversity work, i.e. cross-cultural competency, freedom of prejudice, increasing understanding of culture, and the goals of spiritual work, which includepsychosocial harmony, moral development, and enlightenment. It would be simplistic to say that the quest for multicultural competency is the same as the quest for spiritual understanding and enlightenment. But the concurrent pursuit of both of these aims solves inherent difficulties of the pursuit of either without the other. Diversity work without spiritual work –and its emphasis on the transcendent –can underscore differences, but yet fail to provide a framework for unity. Spiritual work without diversity work can cause individuals to ignore unpleasant realities such as prejudice and discrimination and, worse, adopt a “them-and-us” attitude towards others not of the same spiritual persuasion. The common ground between diversity work and spiritual work rests on several implicit similarities. First, the individual incentive towards both is the longing for connection, belonging, and understanding of the self. Second, both quests support the broadening of the self by encouraging the transcendence of the limitations of beliefs and attitudes that limit growth. Third, each provides a practice field for the development of harmonious intergroup relations or individual and group interdependence.

Concurrently linking diversity and spirituality implies a shift in emphasis on the part of the practitioner. It means that we must reconceptualize the work and facilitate it in radically different ways:

  • Our emphasis and values must be on inclusion at the core of our work.
  • Our approach should move away from the didactic, therefore allowing individuals to have their own experience of diversity and spirituality. (Possible techniques: the Group Relations approach and the use of dialogue)
  • Our work should reflect the “gray areas” of ambiguity and complexity in both diversity and spirituality, reflecting our learner (as opposed to expert) status.
  • In addition to confronting the “identify” diversities, such as race, gender, and sexual orientation, we should also confront the more subtle “belief system” diversities, such as religious differences.
  • Our work should unite human potential work and traditional diversity work.
    We should explore all the implications of diversity in our lives, both workforce and personal.
  • Our venues for sharing this work are less likely to be in corporate settings, and more liable to be in public, educational or, ecumenical settings.

The paradigm shift from an emphasis on the business case towards an emphasis a spiritual (or personal growth) underpinnings of diversity work provides a deeper, more personal incentive for participation in diversity work. Rather than relying on an emphasis on legal/ethical frameworks (as exemplified by Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action frameworks) or economic incentives (exemplified by both “valuing diversity” and “managing diversity” approaches), the diversity/spirituality link speaks to an agenda that is more personal and universal: the desire to be a broader, deeper, and more conscious human in a shifting and uncertain time.

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