HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Diversity: A book review by Bob Morris

HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Diversity
Various Contributors
Harvard Business Review Press (May 2019)

“Diversity: The art of thinking independently in collaboration.” Malcolm Forbes

This is one in a series of volumes that anthologizes what the editors of the Harvard Business Review consider to be “must reads” in a given business subject area, in this instance barriers to women becoming C-level executives. I have no quarrel with any of their selections, each of which is eminently deserving of inclusion. If all of these 12 articles (including two “bonus” articles) were purchased separately as reprints, the total cost would be about $107 and the practical value of any one of them exceeds that. Given the fact that Amazon US now sells a paperbound edition for only $16.34, that’s quite a bargain.

The same is true of volumes in other series such as HBR Guide to…, Harvard Business Review on…, and Harvard Business Essentials. I also think there is great benefit derived from the convenience of having a variety of perspectives and insights gathered in a single volume that travels well.

In all of the volumes in the HBR 10 Must Read series that I have read thus far, the authors and their HBR editors make skillful use of several reader-friendly devices that include “Idea in Brief” and “Idea in Action” sections, checklists with and without bullet points, boxed mini-commentaries (some of which are “guest” contributions from other sources), and graphic charts and diagrams that consolidate especially valuable information. These and other devices facilitate, indeed accelerate frequent review later of key points later.

There seems to be widespread confusion about diversity in a business workplace. The Forbes opinion reminds us that diversity is not a gender issue or a racial issue or an age issue or a political issue. It is a business issue and should be addressed as such. In Judgment Calls, for example, Thomas Davenport and Brooke Manville explain how and why decisions made by a Great Organization tend to be much better than those made by a Great Leader. Why? While conducting rigorous and extensive research over a period of many years, they discovered — as Laurence Prusak notes in the Foreword — “that no one was looking into the workings of what we term [begin italics] organizational judgment [end italics] – the collective capacity to make good calls and wise moves when the need for them exceeds the scope of any single leader’s direct control.”

Bad decisions are much less likely to occur when organizational judgment is centrally involved in a decision-making process My own opinion is that this process resembles a crucible of intensive scrutiny by several well-qualified persons with diverse backgrounds, points of view, and convictions. Moreover, the eventual decision is the result of what Roger Martin characterizes, in The Opposable Mind, as “integrative thinking.” That is, each of those involved has “the predisposition and the capacity to hold two [or more] diametrically opposed ideas” in mind and then “without panicking or simply settling for one alternative or the other,” helps to “produce a synthesis that is superior to either opposing idea.”

The best minds with the most extensive (and diverse) experience do not always make the best decisions but I like the odds. This is what David Thomas and Robin Ely have in mind in Making Differences Matter: A New Paradigm for Managing Diversity.” (Pages 1-17) They cite eight preconditions when assembling and then leveraging differences. In “Why Diversity Programs Fail” (29-43), Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev assert that many diversity programs are obsolete (relics of the 1960s) and “focus on controlling managers’ behavior, and as studies show, that approach tends to activate bias rather than quash it. People rebel against rules that threaten their autonomy.” Then in ‘Numbers Take Us Only So Far” (45-55), Maxine Williams reminds us that evidence of discrimination or unfair outcomes “may not be as certain or obvious in the workplace as it was for me the time I was evicted from my apartment [because she was black]. But we can increase our certainty, and it’s essential that wee do so. The underrepresented people at our company are not crazy to perceive biases working against them, and they can get institutional support.”

The other nine essays in this volume also offer cutting-edge thinking other dimensions of a subject that continues to pose unique perils and opportunities:

o Why race matters
o How to tap the hidden strengths of minority executives
o What most people get wrong about men and women
o How to hack diversity’s problem
o Why men still get more promotions Than Women
o What to do when no one retires
o How neurodiversity can be a competitive advantage
o How to manage multicultural teams
o Seven Myths About Coming Out at Work

Organizations need diversity among those who comprise their workforce — not in terms of age, gender, ethnicity, political persuasion, or sexuality but, rather — in terms of their values, experiences, and especially their points of view on what the given organization does and how it does it. Collective judgment and integrative thinking are essential to making the best decisions.

Reading strategically should be guided and informed by thinking strategically. Hence the importance of checking out the “Contents” first. I also think it would be a good idea to check out each of the “Idea in Brief” mini-commentaries. The Editors’ skillful use of various reader-friendly devices will facilitate, indeed expedite frequent review of key material later.

It remains for each reader to determine which of the material is of greatest interest and value to them but I do recommend that all of the material be read so as to create a context, a frame of reference, from which to select information, insights, and suggestions that are most relevant. I also suggest that key passages be highlighted and that a lined notebook be kept near at hand in which to record comments, questions, cross references, etc.


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