Diversity dynamics, defensive routines, and the quest for positive organizations

By Daniel J. Pesut | 10/18/2016

What essential tensions have you witnessed in your organization?

Daniel PesutFor the last several years, I have had the privilege and honor of serving on the National Advisory Committee of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Nurse Faculty Scholars program. In that capacity, I especially enjoyed serving on the Executive Diversity Committee. Over the years, I had the opportunity to work with male and other minority scholars in the program. We often had discussions about issues of diversity and inclusion related to being a member of a minority and under-represented group in academic nursing. 
For example, minority women scholars noted that, because of their minority status, they are frequently invited to participate on numerous committees and task forces and that such inclusion added to their workload. Male scholars discussed negative stereotypes and microaggressions they experienced. These stereotypes were reflected in questions about intelligence, sexual orientation, communication styles, preferential treatment, privilege, compensation, and inattention to issues of power and feminine politics. Knowledge gained and lessons learned sensitized the Executive Diversity Committee and the scholars to stereotype threatmicroaggressions, defensive routines, and the challenges of creating and sustaining positive cultures.
Diversity dynamics
Through dialogue and interaction with the RWJF scholars, we defined a number of diversity issues as complementary pairs (Kelso & Engstrom, 2006) and coined the term “diversity dynamics” to define these issues. (Refer to my post, “The squiggle sense and the complementary nature of nursing” for additional information.) Diversity dynamics are intrapersonal factors (culture, gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, and religion) and interpersonal factors (organizational tensions, differing perspectives, and conflict) that influence organizational culture. Through discussions with the scholars, we came to conceptualize diversity issues and essential organizational tensions associated with these issues as polarities to manage.
Image representing diversityFor example, discussions about diversity and inclusion ought to concurrently consider issues of exclusion and sameness. Reflect on other tensions involved in framing and reframing diversity discussions. The tilde or “squiggle” in the following pairs is used to indicate their complementary relationship: Sameness ~ difference; homogeneous ~ heterogeneous; individual ~ collective; fairness ~ discrimination; visible ~ invisible; ignore ~ recognize; majority ~ minority; express ~ repress; deny ~ acknowledge, surface ~ deep; separate ~ attach; variety ~ likeness; disparity ~ parity; competitive ~ ambitious; privileged ~ advantaged; dominating ~ threatening; defensive ~ offensive; outsiders ~ insiders; aggressive ~ insensitive; analytical ~ emotional; and action ~ process oriented.
What would you add?
What other essential tensions or diversity dynamics have you witnessed, observed, or experienced in your organization? What would you add to the list? Realization of the dynamics associated with the social-justice challenges of diversity will not be resolved until their complementary natures are consciously acknowledged and evaluated.
Diversity dynamics contribute to stereotype threats and defensive routines. Defensive routines are patterns of interpersonal interactions people create to protect themselves from embarrassment and threat. These routines reveal disconnects between espoused theories and theories actually in use.
In positive organizations, people are valued regardless of status. They work toward the greater good, contribute talents, feel confidence, seek growth, express their authentic voices, expand roles to seek new opportunities, build social networks, nurture high-quality connections, embrace feedback, and exceed expectations as members of the organization learn and flourish.
To help organizations reflect and manage essential tensions, Quinn describes what positive organizations look like (Quinn, 2015). Becoming a positive organization requires paying attention to the essential tensions that are part of organizational life. To create positive organizational cultures, people need to become conscious of diversity dynamics, minimize stereotype threat, avoid microaggressions, practice overcoming defensive routines (Noonan, 2007), and support development of high-quality connections.
How will you use your leadership influence to explore diversity dynamics in your organization and, in so doing, contribute to the creation of a positive organizational culture where you work? 
Daniel J. Pesut, PhD, RN, PMHCNS-BC, FAAN, past president of the Honor Society of Nursing, Sigma Theta Tau International, is professor of nursing, Population Health and Systems Cooperative Unit and the Katherine R. and C. Walton Lillehei Chair in Nursing Leadership at the University of Minnesota School of Nursing. He is also director of the Katharine J. Densford International Center for Nursing Leadership.
Kelso, S., & Engstrom, D. (2006). The complementary nature. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Noonan, W. R. (2007). Discussing the undiscussable: A guide to overcoming defensive routines in the workplace. John Wiley & Sons.
Quinn, R. (2015). The positive organization: Breaking free from conventional cultures, constraints, and beliefs. Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.
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