Wisdom tells us that if you and I think exactly alike, one of us is unnecessary. While we, as law enforcement leaders, embrace diverse beliefs and perspectives in principal, the fact remains that we tend to find comfort in those most similar to us. Embracing diversity in the workplace entails more work than we would like, and succeeding at it means attending to it in all of its manifestations.
I use the word diversity broadly to include the usual protected groups of individuals, as well as those whose temperament and aptitude diverge from those of the law enforcement majority. Not coincidentally, within that latter characterization, we often find members of protected groups.
In the last two decades, police managers have done a decent job of recruiting and hiring so our organizations better reflect the communities we serve. As a human resources commander, I feel pride in our organization and its heterogeneity. However, after recent conversations with two employees, I have come to realize that difficult work remains and that I have been complacent.
The employees who opened my eyes comprise different protected groups. Neither individual alleges any wrongdoing or bias from supervisors or peers, yet both feel like outsiders. They are thoughtful and intelligent. While unafraid to voice their points of view, they feel that their messages are discounted. Interestingly, both find that their “otherness” stems from their more cerebral approach, rather than their gender or race. In a line of work where quick decisions and tactical prowess are highly valued, especially at the line level, those who are thoughtful and strategic stand out.
Most large private corporations welcome a diverse workforce. While laudable, these employee differences make these companies better and more profitable. In law enforcement, we are in the business of problem solving. Tomorrow, we may face a complex crisis that we cannot conceive of today—one with a solution impenetrable with conventional thinking. Today we need to build a team of people whose experiences and talents vary so that we are prepared for whatever tomorrow brings.
It is not enough to have the “handsome family portrait on the mantle” for all to admire. Embracing diversity does not mean just sitting with it, tolerating it, and extending courtesy to it. It means listening, engaging, and valuing the differences. The more unease we feel with divergent viewpoints, the more important those perspectives become. As leaders and managers, we must encourage contrary voices. Our ability to understand and interact with our communities and to solve complex problems depends on hearing all of the messages, not just the ones from people who look and think like us.
A diverse workplace, then, is where leaders notice unheard, unappreciated, or, worse, silent voices. We must create an environment safe for the expression of ideas, even the ostensibly outrageous ones. By uniting all of our people in the common cause of fighting crime, emphasizing our shared mission, rather than our differences, we can look for ways to employ all of our unique talents and perspectives. No two people think exactly alike, and all of us are necessary.
Captain Carla A. Johnson of the Tucson, Arizona, Police Department prepared this Leadership Spotlight.
“Embracing diversity does not mean just sitting with it, tolerating it, and extending courtesy to it. It means listening, engaging, and valuing the differences.”