Diversity dividends: experience in the age of logic

Thursday, September 8, 2016 - 18:15

By AIM Senior Research Fellow Dr Samantha Johnson

‘It’s not how old you are, it’s how you are old.’ - Jules Renard

Coaching a public sector senior manager recently, my heart sank when I heard her surmise that she was overlooked for a transfer because of her age. Considering her age in words, not numbers, she’s in the age bracket that perfectly balances expertise and humility.

I was saddened to think that years of talk about a diverse and ageing workforce may have kept us on the road to bias and unwavering discrimination. Of course not, you say, we have policies to address discrimination.  Great.  But all policies are implemented by people.

Do you truly accept diversity?

The workplace is decorated with people from all over the world, people of many colours and ethnic backgrounds. Religions differences are honoured and sexual preferences are accepted. Abilities and disabilities are embraced. We acknowledge complexity in gender affiliation and diversity in family responsibilities.

So our acceptance of diversity is sorted. Done and dusted.  We’re all over it.  Right?  Maybe not.

In my work, I have regular conversations explaining individual differences and encouraging people to withhold judgement and accept diversity in personality and experiences. We’re really not as good at this as we think we are. 

Diversity is about variation and includes different communication styles, thinking styles as well as experience and professional depth. You might call the latter age.

Diversity is anything dissimilar, anything distinctive, any degree of variance.  Do you accept diversity in its entirety? 

The value of Judgement

It seems to me that we have lost sight of judgement.  We’ve forgotten what it means, what it looks like and how it develops.  We’ve been seduced by impressively articulated logic.  We’ve fallen madly in love with analysis.  Judgement is out of fashion. 

I hope you disagree with me.

Judgement and analysis are different.  Being analytical is a highly regarded skill and a very important one, particularly in our public sectors.  We like it.  It’s smart.  And it can come in the form of a highly intelligent, energetic, confident and passionate university graduate. Or an equally impressive, confident, articulate protégé.

Judgement is made of pure gold.  It is the sum of analysis, intellect, emotional management, expert intuition and many years of experience.  It is analysis, plus plus.  But because it’s built on an understanding of complexity, on nuance and nous, on intuition and rational analysis and experience, it is, by its very nature, difficult to articulate.  It may not present as well as analysis.

Understanding what Self Awareness Really Is

Being self-aware includes the ability to know what you do or don’t excel at.  This is particularly important in a competitive workforce.

But like many things in life, as the years add up in our professional work experience, our self-awareness should develop and become deeper and more complex. 

We begin the journey of self-understanding with self-awareness and self-acceptance.  We then develop self-management. The final step is self-complexity. 

Self-complexity is a high level of understanding of self as we adapt and move through different roles and situations in life.

This is a paradoxical and ironic issue that I invite you to reflect on.

Imagine you are assessing two people competing for one position. 

The first candidate is in the age bracket of analytical genius and hungry determination.  The second candidate is in the age bracket that balances expertise and humility.  There may be 20 human years separating these people.

What would you look for?

Would each candidate present a similar self-portrait? Unlikely. 

One may show strong colours and sharp, clear, deliberate and bold lines. 

The other may be subtle, abstract, complex and in pastel. 

Self-portraits will always be different, they’re painted by different artists in different stages of their lives.

But the fusion of crisp, sharp, bold lines and complex, subtle depth can surely result in something outstanding. 

My advice to all of us in the age bracket of balancing expertise with humility is to depict your life journey in words, not numbers.   Practice articulating and reflecting both analysis and judgement and paint an honest and beautiful self portrait.  And my advice to everyone else, look twice, what may appear to be fatigue may, in fact, be perfectly balanced brilliance which can be difficult to portray.

AIM's Workplace Diversity short course provides an honest exploration of the opportunities and challenges inherent to Australia's diverse workplace populations. Building towards the development of meaningful diversity policy, this program will also address the issue of bias and the very real challenges that need to be overcome when creating a truly inclusive workplace.