7 min read
14 Feb

It is no longer good enough to say “diversity is an asset”. Leaders are expected to lead the way of inclusion, to live the values, and to define the DNA of their organization in more visible ways with their head, heart and hands.

Bongani Nqwababa 

In failed transformations, you often find plenty of plans, directives and programs, but no vision.

John P. Kotter 

Many organizations publicly tout their company values – like diversity, inclusion, fairness, integrity and even trust – only to reveal through their own practices, that these values present nothing more than a window dressing to appeal to the marketplace. 

Dr. Donte Vaughn and Randall Powers    

INTRODUCTION Diversity management in many South African workplaces, insofar as it is still considered at all, has become a tired cliché, a reluctant and resentful nod in the direction of the perceived legal requirements imposed on businesses, a façade applied only to appease public perceptions and benefits derived from such public fronts. Very few such workplaces fully understand and apply the power that true diversity can bring to a business, and we end up throwing the real gift away and playing with the box it came in. This misunderstanding and misapplication of the power of true diversity management leads to several negative if unintended results. It firstly fails to deliver the benefits of true diversity, and secondly leads to unproductive and harmful conflict in the workplace. This article will consequently focus on an assessment of these results as seen from the theoretical and practical experience gained from our work in some of our national workplaces. 


A crucial thesis for purposes of this article is the understanding that employers simply increasing demographic variation and compliance in the workplace does not in itself increase and promote organizational efficiency and success.  The promise and potential of diversity, which we will assess as well, only delivers based on how a company defines diversity, and what it does with these experiences as a diverse organization. More than just ticking boxes and offering the occasional “diversity workshop” is necessary. But what is the case for diversity in any event? The sceptic will be able to point to several workplace experiments, here and internationally, where diversity management did not deliver positive results. We will assess the reasons for such failures shortly. Other than a political and pragmatic approach to workplace and societal peace and harmony (worthwhile goals in themselves), are there any other arguments in favour of workplace diversity that could persuade the cynical business owner of its inherent value without relying on pragmatic, moral or ethical arguments? Bluntly put, can it be argued that diversity is good for business? 

The first strand in such an argument in favour of workplace diversity would show the link between poorly adapted or frustrated diversity management leading to unresolved and/or cyclical conflict in the workplace, which in its turn inevitably leads to a loss of workplace harmony, productivity, creativity, a poor retention of valuable staff, grievances and external disputes, as well as increase in time and money spent on such conflict, and an increase in various risks to the employer. We can call this the conflict management argument for effective workplace diversity management. Right there then we see a measurable motivation to get workplace diversity right, regardless of other considerations, and even if for purely commercial motives. 

But there is a second argument in favour of effective workplace diversity management that can be referred to as a diversity realization approach. In analysing this management approach, we will also look at how diversity application is misunderstood and misapplied in many South African workplaces, leading to criticism, scepticism and even rejection of this powerful management tool.   


Factors such as a lack of in-depth understanding of workplace diversity, a reluctant acceptance of it as another imposed series of legislative interventions, a largely untrained management and HR component and a series of well-publicized BEE+ failures and abuses over the last number of years have all played their role in workplace diversity remaining the underachieving force that it is. Let us consider a few of the more wide-spread errors that we find in the workplace. Diversity properly understood and applied causes positive, constructive dissent, and that type of dissent in turn leads to creativity, productivity, job satisfaction, mutual respect, loyalty and senior team retention. 

In South Africa we however find that dissent is often seen as a sign of disloyalty, a breach of factional or other duties, and a sign that the team is unstable. Some of that same thinking leads to an overt or covert discouraging of dissent so that “we are all on the same page”, with actual dissent being punished in a variety of indirect ways. This is silo building, not great leadership and conflict management. 

The dissent that should flow naturally from diversity is stifled and distrusted, and in the process not allowed to do its magic. Management often fails to understand and apply the important operational distinction between relationship, process and task conflict arising from workplace diversity, and approaching these important differences as if they were one single challenge leads to unnecessary workplaces strains and failures, including process and perception problems, lack of cohesion, depleted energy and effort, increased absenteeism and many others. Various less obvious diversity features and unifying factors such as educational level or experience, lived experience, shared worldviews and so on are not harnessed as a result of the tick-the-boxes approach to diversity, and underperformance, frustration, scepticism and cyclical conflict must follow inevitably. 

Research also shows that mismanagement here does not simply lead to opportunities lost, but that it can actually cause diversity to be a very toxic internal force, working against the employer’s and the team’s goals, especially when unmanaged workplace diversity and closed team cultures lead to the forming of coalitional subgroups. This, it must be emphasized, is a failure of management, not of diversity. 

Dissent itself, in a heterogeneous group, is a conflict factor that must be carefully understood and applied. As we have alluded to above, dissent in a South African context needs its own careful application, dependant on the dynamics of the team involved. Research and experience shows that a one-size-fits-all approach of either no dissent or the so-called “open door, speak your mind” strategies cannot succeed in all instances, and that factors such as specific experience, perceptions, previous and current alignments, team histories and so on can change a good strategy into a disaster.   


We assessed the conflict management approach to workplace diversity acceptance above, and we looked at a few of the errors found in the workplace that negate the true value and power of workplace diversity. The conflict management approach is still, however, a negative strategy in the sense that it seeks to avoid diversity causing conflict and its operational consequences as we have studied above. What does the case for workplace diversity management as a positive force in itself look like? 

In South Africa itself there is no current unproblematic and meaningful studies directly showing the benefits of workplace diversity that I am aware of. In the US there are very strong studies in support of such workplace diversity from a performance perspective, with a 2015 Kinsey report showing that the top 25% of companies with racially and ethnically diverse management teams were 35% more likely to have financial results above their industry mean. Various additional studies show the increased benefit in factual assessment, information processing and innovation resulting from racially and gender diverse teams. 

In addition to such studies it is of course a question that each employer should answer for themselves whether such workplace diversity commitments are solely commercial debates, or whether it includes a moral component, especially in South Africa at this stage. 

Given our political history and current sensitivities, our workplace diversity programs often (unwittingly, no doubt) seek to erase diversity and its power by turning us all into the same cookie-cutter, safe copies of what is perceived to be the ideal, “correct” employee. We seek to respect (and control) this difficult concept by sanitizing it so that we understand and need not fear it, so that it does not become a CCMA or Labour Court cost, so that we can be seen to be doing “the right thing”. 

True diversity, properly understood, acknowledges and proclaims our differences. In that acknowledgement lies the true beauty and potential of diversity as a management tool. Allow people to disagree, to be different, to speak in their own voice, and then bring those energies to your operational problems. This simple but seemingly difficult recognition truly recognizes and respects the worth of each and every person, unlocking what is really there to bring to the workplace. It is by no means a political slogan or the latest in woke theory, but a simple management recognition of a principle that is already applied elsewhere at the workplace, and has been for generations – good leaders know how to get the best from their teams. 

If any of the BEE+ programs are understood properly, they are about restorative justice, and restorative justice deals not only with commercial matters but also those relating to dignity, respect and human value. What can be more respectful, more affirming, than recognizing the uniqueness of the human in your team, and allowing them to reach their full potential while bringing the value of true, recognized diversity to the workplace? 


In South Africa workplace diversity often gets a bad or neutral reception due to the excesses and abuses often found in the BEE system misapplied over years, in an overly legalistic application of compliance to what is often experienced as a dizzying array of labour laws and to other socio-political factors. Mostly in pursuance of compliance demands, but also occasionally born of sincere intent to address past wrongs in the workplace, we see a reliance by management on a variety of change programs, mostly in some form or another designed to foster workplace diversity. 

The statistics here and internationally shows that these programs simply do not work as intended, especially in establishing a workplace environment where the best of diversity potential can be attained and in transferring and maintaining a workplace culture where such diversity can thrive and start maintaining itself. Why is this the case? It is not that management does not understand the need for diversity change management, or want it established, they simply often misunderstand what it needs to be bring workplace diversity management about. These programs throw all of the logical reasoning at such efforts, such as increased pay-for-performance packages and incentives, elaborate programs, and the overhauling of company’s formal structures and systems. This has become so entrenched in workplace conflict that it even has its own name in research, that being the fallacy of programmatic change. Equally important, structures and systems cannot, and do not, lead such diversity change and progress. The diversity errors we considered above add to this misapplication. While these elements are all of course important in the designing of such a workplace diversity change management program, they need to be anchored and driven by a few other applications that modern research show to be far more effective, such as aligning the actual tasks of the company with those diversity goals, spreading such practical implementation throughout the company at all levels as opposed to top-down thinking, building ability to implement the program, a tailor-made program for each company and so on. The failure to understand and implement modern solutions here of course leads to a further increase in scepticism and despondency as to the viability of such projects. Management eventually accepts, after spending a lot of time and money on such projects, that it simply does not work. This is an unfair judgment in many instances, as the correct tools for the job may not have been used.    


We therefore see that there are at least two very good reasons why even the most commercially wary employer should approach the question of workplace diversity in a more constructive and fresh manner, if for no other reason than their own benefit. For this the South African workplace needs to grow up out of its self-conscious, neurotic self-limiting early phase and start applying diversity as the organizational superpower that it actually can be. Good appointment criteria, coaching and development programs to maximise diversity potential and a once-off training of support personnel makes this a commercial reality, with measurable results, that can be implemented immediately, with no legislative amendments necessary, with a minimal outlay in cost and time, and while using existing internal personnel. Workplace diversity, freed from its clichéd and misunderstood brief history here in South Africa, can lead the fight against so many of our national problems, from unemployment to commercial growth. At the very least it will, when properly applied, give the individual employer the moral and commercial edge in the marketplace.   

  • Further references, courses, conflict coaching and study material are available on request.

   (Andre Vlok can be contacted on andre@conflictresolutioncentre.co.za for any further information)

 © Andre Vlok 

February 2022

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