Posted by: W. E. Poplaski | April 3, 2014

Diversity Awareness Exercise Results

Diversity Awareness Exercise: The Story Combined Results from Jan ’13 & April ’14

This summary combines the results from 22 small discussion groups in 2013 and 6 small discussion groups in 2014. Each small group had between four and six individuals and spent approx. 20 minutes coming to a consensus about the rankings. Small group members consisted of male and female undergraduate students.


Table.  Small Group Results (results in parentheses are from 2013)                            
Ranking Mary John Sinbad Mother Grandmother Man W. Horse
    1st 1  (1) 1  (1) 1   ( 0) 1  (4)      2  (16)   0   ( 0)
    2nd 3  (4) 0  (5) 0   ( 0) 1  (9)      2   ( 2)   1   ( 2)
    3rd 2  (3) 1  (8) 0   ( 0) 2  (6)      2   ( 3)   0   ( 2)
    4th 0  (9) 1  (5) 0   ( 1) 2  (2)      0   ( 1)   3   ( 4)
    5th 0  (3) 3  (3) 0   ( 5) 0  (1)      0   ( 0)   2  (10)
    6th 0  (2) 0  (0) 5  (16) 0  (0)      0   ( 0)   0   ( 4)

Each data-entry is the number of groups that gave a character that ranking.


Take-Home Messages

There are at least three important take-home messages to be gained from this exercise.

The first message concerns cultural sensitivity.  An ironic difficulty sometimes faced in cross-cultural interactions is that rather than being too aware of the differences between people, we are too insensitive to the diversity that exists around us.  That is to say, we often wrongly assume other people share the same values, outlook, and even opinions as ourselves. With that assumption, we run the risk of judging the actions of others based on our own values, instead of their own.  Or, we are too often unpleasantly surprised when our predictions of their behavior prove to be inaccurate.

That point was made by former General McChrystal during an NPR Weekend Edition Sunday interview (broadcast 1/13/2013). This excerpt from the transcript is about the interplay between the military and White House staff while he was the U.S. commander in Afghanistan—

…it soon became clear that not everyone envisioned the mission in the same way.

“Many people had different views not only of what the mission was then, but also the direction that we ought to go,” he says.

He ran into misunderstandings between military and civilian leadership over things as simple as terminology (“defeating” the enemy doesn’t mean you have to kill them in military lingo, but civilian leaders were concerned by the term).

“What it really showed was because different cultures — the military, civilian, whatnot — all have their own lexicon, you can be having a conversation where you think you’re communicating effectively…but you’re not,” he says.

The Diversity Awareness Exercise reminds us that a consequence of our individual uniqueness is the diversity of our values, outlooks and opinions—as demonstrated by the variation in rankings for the exercise.  Failing to recognize and respect that diversity can result in misunderstandings that inhibit social cohesion.  It can be the difference that prevents a crowd from becoming a community.

The second take-home message is that diversity can be a useful tool for enhancing creativity.  This can be seen in the sense of surprise the exercise’s results commonly elicits.  That surprise encourages us to enter a state of openness by, at least briefly, letting go of our way of viewing the world.

We can see the value of that openness through two examples.  The first example describes a type of tunnel-vision that can occur during the editing process.  Authors often find themselves wedded to a particular word, phrase or sentence to the extent that the paragraph containing it becomes awkward.  It is when we finally let go of that phrase that the paragraph’s awkward structure disappears.  We get past that stage more quickly when we invite someone else into the editing process because he or she brings a different perspective.

A second example is a situation common to scientific creativity, and can be seen in the story of Watson and Crick’s work to discover DNA’s molecular structure.  Even though they had spent much effort to create a model of DNA’s structure, it was not until they saw Rosalind Franklin’s work that they realized the structure must be a double helix. Viewing her work gave them the insight to reject the path they had been following.

These examples point out that creativity can be enhanced by opportunities to view the world in new ways.  The likelihood of encountering those opportunities is increased with a diverse environment.  However, that same diversity exposes our thinking to more effective criticisms, which can harm our self-esteem, thus serving as a brake to creativity.  Therefore, diversity can only enhance our creativity if it is properly managed (e.g., by helping us to become aware of and respect differing viewpoints).  Otherwise, it can impede communication.

The goal, then, is not only to create diverse environments, but to learn how to manage them to maximize a community’s creativity.  If not, we will too often run into the situation that General McChrystal described in his NPR interview.

Finally, the small group discussions brought us to our third take-home message.  Our ability to successfully come to a reasoned and fair consensus is greatly affected by the quality of our thinking.  Even an exercise as simple as ranking the characters of a parable requires advanced skills—e.g., knowing when to reserve judgment, understanding that there may be relevant missing information, and being able to differentially weight evidence.

The Diversity Awareness Exercise points to the responsibility each of us has to improve his or her critical thinking skills.  In that process we evolve our thinking through a progression of four stages that are in part described by: (1) an uncomplicated view of reality believing that things are clearly true or false, (2) to a view that reality is divided into areas where answers are known and other areas where answers are not known, (3) to an understanding that many views of reality exist, but some are valid or legitimate, and (4) to a belief that knowledge is inherently indeterminate, value-laden, constructed by fallible human beings albeit making their best attempt to be objective and rational (from: Four Perspectives of Knowing/Writing, The Writing Intensive Workshop, University of Alaska, September 21-22, 1990).  It is this last stage that characterizes a fully mature thinker.

We come away from this exercise with at least three take-home messages—the need to develop an awareness of diversity, the recognition of the possibility to effectively use (i.e., manage) diversity to enhance creativity, and the importance of developing mature critical thinking skills.  I believe those are messages everyone must revisit repeatedly during their lives because they are so easily forgotten.  Neglecting to do so invites misunderstandings and can result in missed opportunities to be successful.

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