A celebration of diversity

October 10, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

Motivational Poster - rowingPeople crave unity – and dream of a world without conflict. Business emphasises the idea that all staff should be singing from the same songsheet. Motivational posters emphasise such teamwork through relevant pictures – typically showing sporting images such as rowers – all pulling together in unison.

Having rowed, while at school, I can appreciate this image – a boat where the rowers fail to row as one will quickly flounder. However I question whether such unity is good for business or the world.

The bible story of the tower of Babel gives a different perspective on this that is worth considering (and thanks to Rabbi Andrew Shaw for the idea). The story is related in Chapter 11 of Genesis.

Verse 1: Now the whole earth had one language and one speech.

On first reading this fails to make sense. If they were one language, then surely they were “one speech”. However this is not what the text is saying – it is suggesting that not only did they all speak the same language, but they all thought the same and said the same. There was no disagreement. A few verses later, this sense of common purpose is manifested as an action plan:

Verse 4: And they said, Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top is in the heavens; let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.

The people are behaving as one – they all agree and show a desire to congregate together, rather than spreading across the earth and showing independence of thought and action.

This view seems utopian. No racism; no hatred; no conflict; total harmony and love of fellow man, to the extent that they don’t want to separate.

Yet what happens next, in this context, is incredible.

Verses 6-8: And the LORD said,  Behold, the people are one and they have all one language, and this they begin to do; and now nothing will be withheld from them which they have imagined to do. Come, let Us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech. So the LORD scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth; and they left off building the city.

Rather than supporting human endeavour, God seems to be punishing it – and actually destroying this unity, so that mankind is forced to spread out across the world. The question is why? What is so wrong with thinking the same, acting the same and believing the same? The text even suggests that mankind would have been able to do whatever it wanted to do, had God not acted.

I believe that in fact there is a lesson for business here. Imagine two businesses: the first expects conformity, has top-down management that gives instructions and punishes a failure to obey. Such a business will quickly oust anybody who fails to follow company mores – leading to a strong culture, and way of working. In contrast, the second business encourages diversity and embraces change. There may also be a strong culture for this second business but it will be based on flexibility and recognition that each staff member is an individual and it will respect their differing opinions.

The first business would succeed when their isn’t much competition and where the business environment is stable and unchanging. In fact such a business could become a powerhouse in such circumstances, as its single purpose and single mind would allow it to do whatever it wanted.

Unfortunately in the 21st century, this doesn’t happen. All business faces competition and change is a fact of life. A business that was unwilling to respect differing opinions would fall into an almost idolatrous believe in routine, and be unable to change course easily. It would be impossible to suggest that an agreed business plan had weaknesses – as challenging the established order would be anathema. In contrast, the second business type would flourish as it would take ideas from wherever or whoever they came from, and use them as relevant. Flexibility would be key, and such a business would be able to move out to new markets and geographies.

That is the lesson of the story of the Tower of Babel: diversity is key as expecting the world to remain constant is not the real world. Change is inevitable and fearing change is poor management. Instead businesses that respect different ideas and opinions are the ones that can adapt and grow – rather than those for which routine becomes their business idol.

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