Over at the QuickBase blog, Esther Schindler offers some interesting thoughts on how to treat your workplace’s “village idiot.” According to Schindler, every group has an “idiot” — a team member who is simply the least productive and accomplished. It’s just a fact of life: in any given group, someone has to be the worst.

Schindler says that the way teams treat their “idiot” is important. If your team treats their “idiot” poorly, than you can bet the team is broken in some way. A healthy team, on the other hand, appreciates each member’s contributions — no matter how scant — and offers the “idiot” support rather than vitriol.

Schindler says that teams that treat their idiot well “appreciate diversity,” and it’s that phrase that really sparked my interest and drove me to write a post that piggybacks on Schindler’s excellent piece.

Too often, when we think about diversity, we think about it in fairly superficial terms. Generically, “diversity” is code for race, ethnicity, and gender. These are things that inform our life experiences, but they won’t necessarily impact the workplace on their own. This is why I’m so drawn to the work of James O. Rodgers, the self-proclaimed “Diversity Coach.” (Full disclosure: I have written content for Rodgers in the past). For Rodgers, appreciating and leveraging diversity for the good of your organization is about more than filling quotas and looking good in the public eye — it’s about recognizing that unique life experiences give people unique new perspectives, and these new perspectives are what matter in the workplace.

Recruiting Is Only the First Step

Rodgers is a writer, speaker, and consultant whose professional raison d’être is workplace diversity. But “diversity” is a tricky word. It’s ill defined and even more poorly understood, which means it often leads to confusion, conflict, treacly self-congratulations, and inefficient, unnecessary uses of company resources. What it doesn’t always lead to: better business results.

However, this doesn’t mean that diversity in the workplace is a bad or useless thing. See, the problem isn’t diversity itself. The problem is that we don’t know what we’re doing when we try to appreciate diversity and leverage it to better our organizations.

Diversity initiatives often focus on recruiting efforts. We bring in more people of color and more women, and we think this means we’re done. We now have a diverse workplace! So we pat ourselves on the back.

But nothing actually changes in the organization. That’s because diversity isn’t magic. As with any tool, you actually have to use it to get results.

But how do you “use” diversity? How do you get results?

“Deliberate Diversity”

Rodgers calls his approach to management “Deliberate Diversity.” Rodgers’s philosophy is dramatically different from other approach to diversity in that it emphasizes diversity of perspective, rather than more superficial characteristics.

See, our backgrounds shape the way we think and behave. Our races, our ethnicities, our genders: these traits don’t define us, but they are part of our lives. As such, they play a role in creating our unique perspectives. Diversity is valuable precisely because it brings together a wide mixture of unique perspectives.

According to Rodgers, leveraging unique perspectives is the key to unlocking the full potential of your diverse workplace. You can’t simply bring aboard a diverse mix of people and expect things to get better. Once you have diverse talent in the office, you then have to give them a chance to open up and share their unique perspectives. That’s how exciting ideas are shared. That’s how new solutions are found. That’s what matters: not your employees’ skin color, but your employees’ contributions.

So let your employees contribute. Don’t just hire them to sit there and look diverse.

Diversity and the “Village Idiot”

Schindler’s post made me thing of Rodgers because, when she talks about teams appreciating diversity, she’s talking about appreciating diversity of perspective. The team’s “idiot” contributes to workplace diversity by bringing a new perspective to the table.

If a team truly appreciates diversity, they’ll find that the “idiot” isn’t necessarily an “idiot.” He may not be as productive or accomplished as the other team members, but that can be a virtue. His background is totally different than his other team members, and this means his thinking could yield solutions or ideas that the other teams members might miss.

The “idiot” isn’t dumb — he’s an outsider. And outsiders have an easier time thinking outside of the box, because they aren’t constrained by the rules we all internalize over time.

So, I’m with Schindler: a good team appreciates and supports its “idiot.” Not out of pity. Not out of necessity. But because the “idiot” can think in ways the rest of them can’t — and what he does with his unique perspective may very well surprise you.

in Diversity]