The Mental DIVersity Trap and Cognitive Monsters

pencilssmallerThe entire D&I profession is running up against the divisiveness inherent in the DIVersity paradigm.

The sad fact is that “valuing diversity” has been so deeply ingrained in the American mindscape that neither the consultants nor their clients seem to be able to escape from the cage of the differences-based mentality the “Diversity” profession has worked to embed over the last half century.

D&I has painted itself into a corner. Because of what an ill-defined Diversity promoted over the past 40-50 years, people are generally incapable of meeting people merely as people. Society has become almost universally “differences-seeking” first, rather than personhood seeking.

Though children recognize variety, we all know that children don’t naturally do that in a negative way…or at least they didn’t…until taught to evaluate others according to a narrow band of attributes.  Now, even children have been taught “diversity” concepts so that what used to be the domain of racists, sexists and bigots has been elevated in a benign looking “rainbows everywhere” package, teaching even the youngest children to classify, recognize and articulate specific and narrowly framed ascription. Sadly, “Diversity” has spread the “differences-based mentality” around to just about everyone.  As it’s been taught, DIVersity has trained multiple generations over the broader swath of people to see others as an “it” of some key primary difference rather than as a person first, and accounting for variety at some point afterward. The effects are well known, painfully obvious.

There is general agreement that D&I hasn’t produced the results most in the profession would have liked to have seen after 50 years of “Diversity.”  Many are turning to complex psychological theory such as hidden bias and blind spots as the primary reason for the failure.  Diversity villagers are hotly pursuing what researcher John A. Bargh refers to as this newer “cognitive monster” down the dark streets and alleys of the unconscious, neuroscience foxhounds in the lead, torches and pitchforks in hand, giving new life to D&I Consultants and providing a toe-hold in the lucrative D&I game for the bias psychologists.  It’s a fascinating chase.

But something simpler is afoot by which “Diversity” has shot itself in the foot.

Psychologists have long understood that the mind doesn’t process things (including people) in multiple ways at the same time when quick decisions are necessary.  When there is some level of urgency, the brain is designed to quickly analyze an array of characteristics and then choose one way to process each thing it comes across within the context of the current situation.

A simple illustration:  The brain will process a beautifully balanced and razor sharp knife as a “kitchen tool” if they are preparing food in the kitchen, but as a “weapon for combat” if they are attacked in their kitchen.  In a job interview, a hiring manager cannot process a candidate both as a Latino social identity and at the same time as a highly professional work identity, say, a P.E. (Engineer).  The interviewer must cognitively choose between the two. The interviewer, able to process only one identity at a time, must engage in “switching” between the two (or more) identities (e.g., Latina, P.E., gay, etc.) That is mentally taxing, distracting, to say the least, and the DIVersity candidate is the one that suffers in the end. We are usually incapable of processing such duality without long, intense and difficult psychological training far beyond anything the typical DIVersity Consultant can provide.

The simplest non-academic explanation is this:  It is virtually impossible to listen to two voices at the same time.  If two people are talking to us at once, we cannot follow both.  If our spouse is making a request of us while our favorite televised event is in progress, we zone out on one of them to give attention to the other.  To gain the benefit of what is being said, especially if there is critical information or important instructions involved, we must actively choose which voice we will listen to.  That’s the way the brain works for our inner voices as well.  We may listen intermittently to several, one at a time, but we have to choose one to obey.

D&I has instead regrettably focused the masses on the “it” of identity politics for so long, and so loudly, that generally folks have lost the ability identify others as we all are, simply fellow human beings first and foremost, each unique in our own totally human ways. Why is this not a good thing?

The interviewer who is asked to focus on DIVersity has been rendered incapable of separating what a candidate knows (talent/work identity) from what a candidate appears to be (social identity), and usually ultimately fails to deal exclusively with only the most important one of those in the interview process. Interviewers are disadvantaged when having to listen to two voices, one for talent, one for diversity. The “diversity candidate” is disadvantaged when the interviewer is asked to focus on anything other than the needs of the job to be filled. The nature of the cognitive load exacerbates tendencies toward exclusiveness by generating negative feelings about “cultural fit.”

Valuing differences means exactly that, looking for differences, focusing on them, and prioritizing differences so that you see them and begin concentrating on reacting to them in a proactive and hopefully positive way.  “DIVersity” has ingrained the importance of elevating and honoring and reacting to differences rather than talent.

Thus, before the interviewer’s mind can react to anything else about the candidate…specifically the relationship of their skills and talents to the needs of the job, the physical and assumed cultural correlations have been placed as a roadblock, a constant companion the interviewer is obliged to deal with and demonstrably value through the process. DIVersity has virtually ensured the roadblock will remain throughout a career by convincing everyone, management in particular, that they must remain focused on DIVersity for all facets of the work environment.

The candidates available for hire, for key work assignments and for promotions who are most similar to the interviewer, therefore, will not require that level of cognitive load.  The mental and emotional burden and interference of “differences” simply isn’t there. The interviewer will naturally and subconsciously feel more “comfortable” with the similar candidate without the stresses of accommodating perceived (but false and meaningless) differences.  The discomfort of differences weighs on the hiring choices, even where racism, sexism and bigotry were never a real problem for the interviewer.  DIVersity has created that conditioned response, and DIVersity sustains that condition.

No matter our date of birth, ethnocultural background, gender, we are all on this planet right now, together. When we are born or when we imagine that we will die matters not. Any of us, no matter our “generation,” could die before we finish reading this post. We are all breathing polluted air. We are all drinking poisoned water. We are all eating substandard food (if we’re among the fortunate) and we are all living in what has become a planetary garbage dump that is destroying our beautiful home.

Separating humans into meaningless categories creates an infrastructure of self-interest based on illusory social constructs. It distracts us from what is important, and nullifies happiness along the way.

The DIVersity paradigm of identity politics is and has been a massive failure for most. Ben Chavis, for NAACP Chair, expressed his particular enjoyment of a report by Damon Autry presented at the Detroit summit titled, “The Diversion of Diversity.”  “Autry emphasized that the issue of “diversity” within corporate America has evolved today to serve more as a diversion from sustainable corporate social and economic responsibility.

Even some goodhearted and well-meaning D&I Consultants are looking for a way out. One consultant, for example, actively promotes the idea of resorting to a “stealth” strategy to avoid the workforce push back in response to traditional D&I work. The bad news there is that it’s getting more difficult to sell an openly differences-based approach to bringing people together.

The good news is that there are viable alternatives. The tide is turning. People are catching on.  Join the discussion on how to escape the DIVersity trap at

Copyright © 2014 – Robert D. Jones – All Rights Reserved