Diversity and the elephant in the room

  • Published
  • By Col. MarnĂ© Deranger
  • 341st Missile Wing vice commander
As a wing, we were asked, "What are you doing to support and enhance diversity in your unit--that which is frequently done and supported by action?" All levels of all organizations should answer this question. So as you look around your office, ask yourself, "What am I doing?"

Now, before you tell me you have no control over who ends up in your shop - you just take on whoever the Air Force Personnel Center sends you - read the question again. What are you doing to support and enhance diversity? When I ask this question, I don't just mean the obvious diversity - race, religion, gender or ethnicity; I want to know how you encourage diversity of thought. How do you ensure your diverse population gives voice to their different viewpoints?

As an Air Force, we have always valued innovation. If there is a better or more efficient way to get the job done (or our particular favorite, a new technology to be employed), we are the first to jump on board. Each service has its own culture, which in itself supports the value of diversity, and innovation is ours. Why am I talking about innovation in an article about diversity? I ask because the best innovations come from diverse groups. The more different people you can have look at a problem, the better your solution will be.

Have you heard the parable about four blind men who were tasked to describe an elephant based on touch alone? (A safety report waiting to happen, I know.) Each described the animal in a different way based on his perspective and location relative to the elephant: that the elephant was like a pipe (tusk), brush (tail), wall (body), pillar (leg). It took all four people, explaining their unique and limited perspective, to describe the elephant in the room accurately. When you are solving a problem, do you solicit many different perspectives? When you are attempting to innovate, who gets a voice?

Recently, in a wing exercise a captain spoke up to a room full of colonels. Those colonels were running a Crisis Action Team checklist and had just discussed a step regarding identifying foreign nationals requesting base entry. The captain, whose spouse is a foreign national, asked a question about military dependents - something the CAT hadn't considered when addressing that particular checklist step. It changed the scope of the checklist step for every member of the CAT and sparked an excellent conversation. As a result, the discussion made the team's actions more comprehensive and accurate. The CAT realized it had completely overlooked one whole portion of the elephant in the room. This discovery happened because individuals were encouraged to voice their unique perspective. It happened because the team encouraged diversity.

So what are you doing to encourage those different perspectives? When someone asks a question that takes the discussion off course, are you irritated or supportive? When someone plays "devil's advocate," do you shut him or her down? When someone points out a flaw in your decision, how do you react? To properly support and enhance diversity, you should applaud them.

When you think of diversity, don't only think of race, religion, gender or ethnicity; think instead of the valuable perspective you can gain when you have different people working together. To quote a popular country song, "Ever since the beginning, to keep the world spinning, it takes all kinds of kinds."