The elephant parable
Diversity in the workplace isn’t a box-ticking exercise, writes Katie Schoenberg of Elanco’s Global Diversity and Inclusion Council – it’s a smarter way to problem-solve.

A colleague recently introduced me to the fable about the elephant and a group of blind men. Originating in ancient India, it’s a fantastic parable about diversity.

If you don’t know the story, it’s about a group of blind people who are introduced to an elephant and asked to determine what it is. At the head of the animal, one person feels the flexible tube of the trunk and declares it to be a snake.

Meanwhile, another describes the round, rough leg of the elephant and believes they’re standing next to a tree trunk. Up top, one person touches the flapping ear and says they must be holding a fan, while another at the rear tugs the thin tail and decides they have a rope in their hands.

Leaving aside the experience of the poor elephant for a moment, just what is going on here? While each of these individual descriptions is not entirely wrong, none of them is entirely correct either.

Not only is each person seeing only parts of the elephant rather than the whole, they are also bringing their individual experience and backgrounds to bear on the task at hand.

In today’s terms, there’s an inherent bias in both their data gathering and the conclusions they reach. This is entirely natural – we all do it, whether we’re aware of it or not.

And while there’s only so much we can do about this as individuals, we can mitigate against it as a team. And we do this through harnessing diversity through inclusion.

A group of people with different perspectives – whether they’re based on gender, race, religion, background or anything else – will see a problem differently.

So what can we learn from the elephant parable? Ultimately, it comes down to our being aware that the individuals around us will be approaching discussions, decisions and problem-solving from very different perspectives.

And it’s essential that we create environments in which individuals are willing to share their experiences and perspectives so we can put together each part of the bigger picture.

If each of the people describing the elephant submitted their answers individually, they would all be inaccurate. But give them an opportunity to share their perspectives together and you may be able to piece together all the parts of the elephant.

In one version of the fable, the individuals begin arguing with each other. They call each other liars and ultimately come to blows. Clearly this isn’t effective either.

Instead, we need to be active, empathetic listeners who’ll take others’ perspectives into consideration.

At Elanco, the most effective teams are those that are diverse, those that create platforms for open communication and those that respect other opinions.

Our Global Diversity and Inclusion Council, our employee resource groups, and ultimately each one of us is responsible for finding ways to create opportunities to share diverse perspectives.

We need to create safe spaces to describe a trunk, an ear, a leg and a tail. Otherwise, we’ll miss the elephant.

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