Understanding the journey of different ‘from’ to different ‘for’.

Diverse People

In the past, similarity worked. This was how the world worked. Teams, even entire organizations, worked based on people who were like you. It was easy; it felt comfortable.

You began with a foundation of common knowledge and experience, a sense of who people were, their background, their values, what is important to them. Recruitment was often based on finding people who think like you, act like you, people you could count on. Teams were taught: one size fits all; you all row together; you leave your identity at the door – there’s no “I” in team.

In this mindset/worldview, diversity is the enemy. For most people, fear of difference is ingrained. People do not have a positive feeling about diversity. It seemed that keeping diversity outside the corporate gates was the way to build success. The somewhat dated but nonetheless hugely popular book, Built To Last (Jerry Porras & Jim Collins) unintentionally or not, reinforced the idea that corporate alignment was the holy grail of business efficiency and success. Whilst this might have been intended to apply to the operational side of things and to systems, it somehow got applied to people as well!

But the world has changed. Dealing with diversity for any leader or manager is simply no longer optional. This view holds in spite of developments like Brexit and what is playing out in the current American political landscape. The increase in tribalism and nationalism is in part a reaction to the influx and inability to deal with and cope with diversity. Such measures and policies might have the impact of reordering things and introducing some changes but they won’t deal with the fundamental reality of living in a world in which diversity is something we experience every day.

The good news is there are significant benefits to be had by an organization’s ability to harness diversity. There are three important benefits to harnessing diversity; benefits that make the pain of doing so worth your while.

These are:

  • The obvious one is innovation. Innovation is critical to competitive advantage in that it is no longer good enough to merely rely on business efficiencies as a means to garner competitive advantage. Of course a great deal is said and written about ‘innovation’ but real innovation requires harnessing diversity and that is easier written than practiced. Of course efficiencies are important, get this area wrong and you won’t even be the game! However the need to consistently adjust and adapt to an exponentially changing world and market, one driven by forces we don’t control, means that a vital survival skill – and one needed to do more than merely ‘survive’…but rather how to thrive, is the ability to reinvent oneself and innovate. Diversity is an important ingredient in the mix that enables us to do just this.
  • Diversity leads to resilience. Who amongst us, if asked do we think that (put your organization’s name here) needs to be a ‘resilient company’ would shrug this attribute off as unimportant? In today’s hostile and volatile business environment, resilience is an essential characteristic. Harnessing diversity builds resilience and this link has been confirmed through the research done by Gunderson, Allen and Holling (2002). Resilience can be defined as the ‘ability to get back on your feet when knocked down’ – and given this, it is something that becomes essential to thriving in the turbulence that is the future.
  • Diversity also leads to authentic community building. Authenticity within organizations is becoming increasingly important as expectations concerning the ‘smell of the place’ (how Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks describes organizational culture) change in the face of a ‘new world of work’ and a changing workforce. Diversity offers a tough road to authenticity but it is a road that, if travelled, offers tangible rewards.

We know there is difference and we know too that there are real benefits to be gained by understanding and harnessing that difference. However, it is important to acknowledge that there are numerous lenses or filters through which to explore how we are in fact different from one another. The most common of these are: culture, gender, age, personality, race/ethnicity, religion, class, sexuality, education (including learning differences), health, and the future – how we think about change and the future. Often individuals or organizations fixate on only one or a couple of these filters thereby doing an injustice to both the complexity and the scope that is diversity.

But, the problem is we often confuse ‘variety’ with ‘diversity’ and in most organizations, when we talk about diversity we are really meaning variety.

The result is that we ‘manage’ diversity in such a way that means we never realize the benefits nor understand true diversity. Prof Peter Hershock, Director of the Asian Studies Program at the East West Center in Hawaii offers a brilliantly helpful analogy to understand the difference between variety and diversity.

He contrasts a zoo with a rainforest. In a zoo one can see all the animals that one would hope to see in the wild but here they are all confined to cages or enclosures. In a zoo the ‘system’ is not self-sustaining and it would collapse if not managed or if not given external input e.g. someone has to ‘turn on the lights’ and feed the animals in order for the zoo to survive. This is variety. It is a quantitative index of simple multiplicity. It is a function of simple or complicated co-existence.

In a rainforest there is both collaboration and competition. Different systems co-exist and evolve towards a state of balance and equilibrium. This is true diversity. It can be messy, chaotic and is always adaptive. Diversity is a qualitative index of self-sustaining and difference-enriching patterns of mutual contribution to shared welfare. It connotes processes of meaningful differentiation. It is a function of complex, coordination enriching interdependence.

Understanding this distinction helps us appreciate just how much organizational mindsets and behavior will need to shift if we are to truly lead and ‘manage’ diversity in order to extract the benefits we have mentioned.

It is not simple is it?

How then do leaders learn to lead diversity?

A crucial first step is to identify your “filters” and the filters of your team members. As stated earlier, we all perceive and interpret the world through filters (or lenses). Identifying your filters and, more importantly, recognizing their order or hierarchy (this can fluctuate depending on context) is an important tool for enhancing self-awareness and developing empathy by understanding others from their point of view.

Consciously or unconsciously, we default to our dominant filters to make sense of human behavior. In a given situation, competing perspectives, explanations and reactions are frequently grounded not in different filters, but in our personal filter hierarchies – in other words, the order in which we sift and prioritize information.

By identifying these hierarchies, we can learn to recognize when dominant filters influence our personal behavior (biases, triggers and blind-spots) and that of others, enabling a more informed and sophisticated leadership response. By highlighting difference, we discover ways to intentionally lead diversity. So we start to understand how we are different from each other, which then leads to the second, step, namely, the need to value difference or diversity. In other words, we choose to appreciate the fact that we are different from each other.

Once we start to value diversity it provides impetus to the third step, the need to intentionally engage with diversity. It is not an accidental engagement but rather an intentional mindset and actions that opens up the possibilities that diversity offers. This is one reason why I love travel and getting to experience different places, people and situations. Travel affords an experiential engagement with diversity like no other. One of my favourite quotes is that of Mark Twain who wrote, ‘Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime’.

Smart leaders actively build diversity because they understand all this. Is it easy? No. Does it require a different mindset and skill set? Absolutely.

The challenge is to learn how to be different for each other by first recognizing that we are different from each other. To be different for each other means that I am able to bring ‘who I am’ into the room in such a way, that I add value to those there. Ultimately we move from being different ‘from’ each other to being different ‘for’ each other so that we can be different ‘together’.

As a leader this is the journey that is required; this is the journey on which you need to be able to say, “we are embarked’; this is what it means to lead in today’s world in order to thrive in tomorrow’s world. This is the journey that is your journey.



We invite you to connect with our team to find out more about how our Leading Difference Differently framework could be applied to your teams to enable you to really start benefitting from the diversity within your organisation. Chat to us if you’d like to encourage your team to be different for each other, rather than from each other.

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