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30 Apr. 2012 | Comments (0)

Diversity & Inclusion professionals strive to cultivate open minds to encourage people to understand and value a broad spectrum of perspectives.  When we think of people with closed minds, we rarely think of Diversity champions.  But what happens when D&I practitioners close our minds to new ideas?

Consultant, Nancy Leach, shared this insightful story during a class I took with her last year. 

A scholar with an extensive background in Buddhist studies went to study with a Zen Master.  The scholar asked the master to teach him Zen, and then proceeded to talk at length about Buddhism, Zen and other related topics.  While patiently listening, the master made a pot of tea.  When the tea was ready, she poured it into the scholar’s teacup.  Tea spilled onto the floor, but she continued to pour as the cup overflowed.  When the scholar noticed what was happening, he exclaimed, “Stop.  The cup is too full, and you cannot get any more tea into it.”  At that point, the master stopped pouring the tea and said, “You are like this cup.  You are so full of ideas and information that nothing else can get in.  Before I can teach you anything new, you must empty your cup.”

The field of D&I is mired in what we already know, and married to familiar initiatives and practices. This mindset is persistently reinforced by D&I job descriptions that dictate the execution of the same old initiatives, D&I awards that celebrate the same old practices, and D&I conferences that rehash the same old topics.  As Avivah Wittenberg-Cox writes in How Women Mean Business, we call our leading initiatives best practices even when they don't deliver best results, and even when they unintentionally do as much harm as good.  In this environment, it is unsurprising that we have become connected to our own ideas, full of our own perspectives, pleased with our own progress, and tied to known approaches.  Our teacups are full, and being sated with the status quo leaves us without capacity to be open to innovations in our work. 

What is the cost to our stakeholders?  When we are wed to what we already know, our perceptions become clouded and possibilities become constrained.  Our creative energies focus on incremental improvements to existing initiatives, rather than on groundbreaking innovations that can make a more significant difference for individuals, organizations and society. 

In a TED Blog post by Helen Waters on February 28, 2012, Julie Burstein, author of Spark, How Creativity Works, is quoted saying, “In order to create, we have to stand in that space between what we see in the world and what we hope for.” In that space, we can more clearly see which existing approaches really are worth taking forward and which ones are not.  In that space, we might see that current best practices don’t mean that there are not even better practices to generate breakthrough results.  If we empty our teacups and openly engage with new possibilities, we unleash opportunities for innovation toward more meaningful results. 

The lesson is: Empty your teacup, take a fresh look at the global practice of D&I, and engage with diverse perspectives to spark innovative ways to achieve better results. 

View our complete listing of Diversity & Inclusion blogs.

  • About the Author: Rebekah Steele

    Rebekah Steele

    Rebekah Steele is a senior fellow providing diversity & inclusion (D&I) expertise for The Conference Board. She serves as program director for both the Diversity & Inclusion Executives and…

    Full Bio | More from Rebekah Steele


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