Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Workplace Diversity and Communication Strategies

The question of how to deal with an increasingly diverse workforce is a matter of debate amongst academics and practitioners.  The journal article, "Managing your diverse workforce through improved communication",  proposes two solutions to attract, retain, and reward members of diverse groups within the workplace: managing personal growth and employee mentoring.

The authors explain that diversity issues arise from perceptions about the similarities and differences between people.  For example, managers may react more negatively towards an employee who they perceive to be dissimilar from themselves than they do towards an employee who they perceive to be similar.  These reactions can create an environment where the potential of employees is limited; this, in turn, limits the potential of the organization as a whole.

The three most common approaches to workplace diversity are affirmative action, valuing diversity, and managing diversity.  The article deals specifically with the latter, since the authors believe that it is the most effective.

The focus of managing diversity is on skill-building and the creation of polices that bring out the best in an organization's employees.  While affirmative action is legally driven and valuing diversity is ethically driven, managing diversity is strategically driven, meaning that the main goal is to achieve organizational goals and objectives such as increased productivity and profit.  If diverse groups within an organization can create new ways of working together, then these goals can be achieved.  However, people may be resistant to this approach for various reasons; they either deny that diversity is a reality that needs to be addressed and/or they are resistant to learning new skills, new systems, and exploring new solutions because of the challenges in doing so.

The authors contend that one way of achieving the goal of managing diversity is to improve supervisor-subordinate communication.  Communication has to be relational, meaning that it is based on openness, mutual respect, trust, support, and power-sharing.  Since workers are more involved in the process, and feel that they are being being treated fairly and equally, they experience greater satisfaction and are more productive.

A more specific strategy for improving supervisor-subordinate communication is the managing personal growth process.  This process involves four phases: pre-workshop assignment, workshop, development discussion, and continued feedback.  In short, the employee and the manager independently define the employee's job responsibilities and capabilities, they exchange their ideas, and then agree on the employee's development plan, job priorities, strengths, and areas for improvement.  The idea is for managers and employees to establish a partnership that facilitates success at both the individual and organizational level.  This partnership is sustained by ongoing meetings where the two parties meet to discuss the employee's progress.

Mentoring is the second strategy for achieving better supervisor-subordinate communication.  Unlike the managing personal growth process, mentoring is a long-term communication strategy between a senior organizational member (the mentor) and a junior member (the protege).  The authors contend that change must occur at the cultural, structural, and behavioural levels of an organization before a mentoring strategy can be successfully implemented.  This requires that managers and supervisors communicate to all employees their commitment to the program as well as its importance for the organization.

The purpose of mentoring is to influence and socialize the protege.  Mentors provide both career development roles, such as coaching, sponsoring advancement, and fostering positive visibility, as well as psychosocial roles, such as personal support, acceptance, and role modelling.  The focus here is on interpersonal activities and the creation of an open dialogue between the two individuals.  If successful, this mentoring relationship enables the protege to transition from an outsider to an insider more easily, and can also challenge the mentor's stereotypical and ethnocentric attitudes.

Through engaging in a managing personal growth process in the short term, and an employee mentoring program in the long term, the authors contend that organizations can succeed in mitigating some of the diversity-related problems encountered in the workplace.

We found this article to be a good introduction to the managing diversity approach.  The solutions proposed by the authors are a good starting point for tackling some of the issues that may arise in diverse workplaces.  Since the article is not intended to provide a comprehensive answer to these issues, it allows for a more focused and detailed examination of possible strategies within the managing diversity framework.

Even so, we think that there there was not enough analysis devoted to how the two strategies challenge existing stereotypes and prejudices.  For example, the authors do not adequately explore the possibility that these attitudes may interfere with the ability of supervisors/mentors to engage with their subordinates in the manner necessary for a mentorship program or managing personal growth process to succeed.  Moreover, if the chief goal of managing diversity is to increase profit and productivity, rather than increase opportunities and equality for diverse groups, can inaccurate stereotypes and feelings of ethnocentrism really be eliminated?

Furthermore, the authors argue that improved supervisor-subordinate communication can only happen if managers relinquish some of their control and share responsibility for decision-making with their employees.  However, they fail to explain how this strategy can be implemented if managers prefer to retain most, if not all, control in relation to decision-making.  What happens if an organization is dominated by these types of managers?  Would training workshops be necessary to change their leadership style?

We also have concerns with regards to the managing growth process.  For example, the 'development discussion' phase is supposed to be an open dialogue between the manager and the employee, and is not meant to be a performance review.  However, the line between the manager being a 'coach' and being a 'judge' is a very fine one, especially when the power dynamic between a supervisor and subordinate is exacerbated by the fact that the latter belongs to a disadvantaged or marginalized group.

Another criticism that we have is that the solutions presented are very individual and employee-focused, and are directed at assimilating employees into the institutional culture of the organization.  Although the authors stress that organizational change has to occur on a cultural, structural, and behavioural level in order for initiatives to be successful, they do not devote enough discussion to how this change can be achieved.  These barriers play such a crucial role in hindering fairness and equity within the workplace that they deserve further analysis.

Finally, it is unlikely that diversity within organizations can truly be facilitated without addressing cultural and structural barriers within society at large.  For example, if poverty is a barrier to higher education for certain ethnic groups within society, then those groups will continue to be underrepresented within segments of the  workforce.  As the article notes, women still assume the bulk of child-related activities, which can lead to difficulties in balancing work and family life.  Until this double duty is addressed within society as a whole, men will continue to occupy the majority of upper level management positions.  Given these realities, it could be argued that mentorship programs and managing personal growth are micro solutions to macro-level problems.

Please give us your thoughts on this blog post by answering the survey questions to the right.  We look forward to analyzing the results of the poll!

Sadr, G., & Tran, H. (2002). Managing your diverse workforce through improved communication. The Journal of Management Development, 21(3), 227-237. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/ docview/216368650?accountid=3455

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