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Embracing Diversity Starts with Self-Awareness, D&I Expert Says

A group of people sitting around a table in an office.

"Difference just is"; it's not positive or negative, diversity and inclusion (D&I) strategist Sonia Aranza told Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) staff members.

How one reacts to differences, though, is key, she added. 

SHRM hosted Aranza, an international speaker and the president and CEO of the Alexandria, Va.-based Aranza Cross Cultural Strategies/Global Leadership Development, at SHRM headquarters in Alexandria for a lunch presentation on Jan. 24. The Filipina Women's Network, based in San Francisco, in 2015 named Aranza, who was born in the Philippines, to its list of the "100 Most Influential Filipina Women in the World."

Cultural competence—defined as the ability to engage effectively across differences—and emotional intelligence are inextricable, Aranza said. 

[Need to learn more about Personal & Leadership Development? Speakers at the 2017 SHRM Annual Conference & Exposition are exploring these topics.]

She urged HR professionals to:  

  • Evolve as leaders.
  • Leverage diversity.
  • Commit to greater self-awareness. 
Aranza sat down with SHRM Online after her presentation to talk more about each of the three goals.

Evolve as a Leader 

Being open to change is "not just [about] the big stuff," such as interacting with people from different religious beliefs or political ideologies, she said. It extends to the small, daily choices people make, Aranza said. 

"Cultural competence is like a muscle that you must build and strengthen," she pointed out. "The most important thing is to understand is that there are so many ways we do not evolve." 

In the day-to-day practice of HR, do you follow convenient ways of working "because they're familiar and comfortable? That's a sign of halting your evolution," she explained. 

"How can you be open to different thoughts, ideas and approaches if you are unwilling to shift your thoughts, ideas and approaches?" 

Leverage Diversity  

"Innovation is the end product of diversity; so is agility and resilience," Aranza pointed out. 

"Diversity of thoughts and ideas," she noted in a follow-up e-mail, "set[s] the stage for innovation." It's important for HR professionals and others "to continuously expand their network and go beyond the familiar. This includes widening the scope when it comes to recruitment, hiring and creating teams." 

An organization trying to anticipate the needs of its Millennial clients or consumers, for example, should have Millennial staffers participate in the product discussions.

Diversity and inclusion initiatives have financial implications. A survey from Korn Ferry Futurestep released in 2016 found that 63 percent of 913 executive respondents from around the globe said that having more women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics careers would have a "great impact" on their company's bottom line. Korn Ferry is a global people and organizational advisory firm with headquarters in Los Angeles.

"We see that companies that make diversity efforts core to their recruiting and retention strategies have a better chance of attracting and keeping the most dedicated, engaged and productive employees," said Samantha Wallace, Futurestep technology market leader for North America, in a news release.

The concept of groupthink—valuing harmony over critical evaluation and strongly discouraging disagreement with the consensus—is harmful because it discourages diversity of ideas, Aranza said.

In practice, though, "most people find it inconvenient to have a diverse team" because diverse viewpoints can create dissent and prolong discussion and projects, she said.

"But that's really where you get the 'juice,' " she pointed out. That inconvenience is "a small price to pay" for the innovation and problem-solving that may result.

Commit to Greater Self-Awareness  

To grow her own self-awareness, Aranza carries a small journal to jot down observations about herself during the day.  

"It's a way of learning about personal biases and confronting them," she told SHRM Online, because the lens through which you view the world colors your decisions. She encouraged people to be mindful about why and how they make decisions.

SHRM Online reported that many managers aren't aware of the hidden biases they have about people's clothes, hairstyles, headwear, height, weight, age, race, gender, disability status and even marital status. Biases can extend to the workplace when preference is given to a job candidate or employee who shares the same faith or lifestyle or who graduated from the same school. 

"Be open to feedback and be open to self-observation," Aranza said. "The opportunity is there when someone gives me feedback but I can't go further when I'm not open to self-observation."

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