Diversity is everywhere. Yet, in our organizations we sometimes say we want diversity, while we fail to set conditions for it.

There are many ways to define diversity in the workplace. For the purposes of this article I chose to draw on a simple and practical definition from Joe Gerstandt: “Diversity means difference, and it is a component of all interactions and relationships.” This way of looking at diversity allows us to appreciate that it is not only something that occurs when people of differing cultures, ethnicities, or religions come together, but something that happens every day with everyone around us.

How well does your organization leverage diversity? The answer is embedded in the everyday interactions of each person in the organization, not just the ones with visible differences.

So what do your everyday interactions look like? Using the Eoyang CDE Model, I offer you three Simple Rules to look at how your organization could influence conditions for diversity: first, identify boundaries; second, harness the energy in emerging tensions; and third, allow fluidity in power relations.

Identify boundaries (container issues)

In your organization, what are the boundaries? When you notice differences, what are they? In a Harvard Business Review article from May 2018, the authors outline three different types of diversity that we often see in the workplace: “demographic diversity (our gender, race, sexual orientation, and so on), experiential diversity (our affinities, hobbies, and abilities), and cognitive diversity (how we approach problems and think about things).”

What types of diversity show up in your organization? From there you can untangle the conversations and ask key questions like: What types of diversity are critical to our success? How many of us contribute to these critical areas? In which type of diversity do we spend most of our energy? Where do we need to focus our energy to meet organizational objectives and goals?

Harness the energy in emerging tensions (difference issues)

In Human Systems Dynamics, we use “tension” to describe the energy generated by a system as it navigates and negotiates differences. Within each of the types of diversity present in your organization there are tensions. What are these tensions? What do these tensions tell you about the differences that make a difference?

It is easy to think of tension and difference as counter-productive energy in an organization. However, I challenge you to think otherwise. Tension is essential energy in a human system, allowing us to learn and create. Uncovering how your organization thinks of tension is a necessary step to asking deeper question like: Where do you notice judgment? What are the items in disagreement? Where are you feeling defensive? What assumptions are you holding about the other?

Allow fluidity in power relations (exchange issues)

Among the main reasons an organization fails to set conditions for diversity is fear of shifting power relations. The more differences in a system, the more power structures get challenged. Where does the power reside in your organization?

Power in an organization can come from several different sources: hierarchy, knowledge, relationships, experience, charisma, etc. Different individuals in an organization can draw on different sources of power at different times for different purposes.

Who makes the decisions? Who is involved in the decision-making process? Who is connected to whom? How do people connect? How do people get rewards? Who is most rewarded?

Whenever power concentrates in one area it is time to reflect on whether the patterns are productive. When resources, rewards, energy, or attention flow in predicable ways, it is a good time to reflect on whether the flow meets organizational needs and goals. If not, then applying more fluid power relations, while respecting the organizational structure, could help your organization use diversity to flourish.

Regardless of the way you define and talk about diversity in your organization, it is essential to set the right conditions for its success. Asking questions about how your organization sees, understands, and influences diversity is the place to start.


Jennifer Jones-Patulli, MA, HSDP and Mary Nations,MSt, MSOD, HSDP.