[This article was originally published on Switch & Shift]

Intellectually, it’s easy for us to promote the value of diversity in our organizations. We can endlessly proclaim epithets about the added benefit of a diverse and varied constituency of employees, espousing the importance of mixing genders, races, generations, and lifestyles.

In our heads, we “get it,” and for good reason—it seems almost self-evident that a variety of perspectives would make our collective decisions better, faster, stronger.

In practice, however, leveraging the obvious benefits of diversity is, well… really freaking hard. We “understand” how important it is, but as I’ve experienced firsthand, many (if not most) organizations aren’t truly capitalizing on their diverse workforce as expertly or powerfully as they’d like to be.

Why is this the case?

Why is it so much more difficult for us to capitalize on diversity than it is for us to understand why it’s crucial?

The dirty secret of diversity is that the problem starts with US, not “them.”

It turns out that leveraging diversity isn’t really about all the “different people” around you as much as it’s about you—and the way you see those people.

Whether we realize it or not, we define ourselves as “normal.” Before you scoff (“There’s nothing ‘normal’ about my crazy life!”), consider this: our default state is to think other people like what we like, and further, that they ought to like what we like. We do the same with things we don’t like.

For example, if we love strategy or details or collaborating or ____________ (fill in the blank), we think other people must love those things, too.

If we hate spreadsheets or sitting in meetings or filling out forms or ____________ (fill in the blank), our default state is to think other people must hate those things, too.

The problem is both of those statements are total lies.

There are people who unequivocally love to do the same exact things you hate to do.

There are people who completely abhor the things you’d enjoy doing all day, every day.

Until we get past the lie that other people are energized or drained by the same things we are, we can’t truly leverage diversity because deep down, we don’t really appreciate it. It’s hard to accept that others may truly enjoy an activity that we’d rather take a fork in the eye than do ourselves.

It’s much easier to see the world as if everyone else is looking through the same “lenses” we are. In fact, statements from this (mistaken) worldview spill out of our lips on a regular basis. “If other people would just call me back at the precise moment they said they would…!” “If other people would just think through their decisions…!” “If other people would not be so mired in the details…!” “If other people just knew how to merge onto the freeway like I do…!”

I hate to break it to us all, but it’s the same stuff that drives us crazy that also enables us to leverage diversity. And that’s why diversity is so damn difficult: to take advantage of it, we have to somehow find a way to get outside of our own “filter.”

Here are three suggestions for how to get started:

1) Our understanding of ‘diversity’ has to go deeper.

The magic of diversity is unlocked in an organization when we can get past “surface” features that look like diversity, and start to embrace the completely fingerprint-like distinctiveness that is a person’s strengths. People who look very different on the outside might have very similar activities that energize them. Find a way to unleash the uniqueness underneath.

2) We must embrace our own genius.

Each one of us has a completely unique set of strengths/talents/gifts/energizers (whatever word you prefer). In order to appreciate the strengths/talents/gifts/energizers of other people, however, we must first be crystal clear about what value we bring to the team. We can’t appreciate the differing perspectives of others if we constantly feel threatened or insecure about our own viewpoint.

3) We have to get exponentially better at being vulnerable.

There’s no way around it; leveraging diversity really is hard. It involves deliberately overriding the “I am normal bias” we have in our brains, and forcing ourselves to see the world from a perspective that isn’t natural, comfortable, and sometimes might even seem ridiculous to us. However we get there, though, without an authentic willingness to try on somebody else’s viewpoint our efforts to leverage the amazing power of diversity will continue to fall flat.

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