Shifting the Mind-Set of “Diversity as a Challenge”
Differences are a good thing
There is an age-old adage: variety is the spice of life. So true! If every day were the same, our lives would be quite bland. Inertia would inevitably set in. Creative diversity would be forced into the open. Despite ourselves, we would intrinsically understand the need for variety.
But then what? Have you noticed that humans seem to respond quite differently to variations in nature than they do to differences among their fellow human beings?
In nature, when encountering great diversity, people tend to say things like: Oooooow! Aaaah! Wow! OMG!
Among a group of diverse people, however, they tend to say things like: Oyi! Oh-No! Really? No-Way! And perhaps even, Caution!
These are markedly different responses!
People might pass judgment on this stark reality. But it helps to know that the tendency to experience fear and contraction when encountering people who are different from ourselves is largely due to the fact that our brains are wired to respond to “strangers,” i.e., people who look, act, or sound different than we do. We approach with caution, and often with an obvious or subtle flight or fight reaction.
This hard wiring presents quite a challenge for diverse types of people in a similar setting, particularly a workforce. To add to the “brain hardware” challenge, there is the conditioning that we are bombarded with on a daily basis through social interaction and the media. This conditioning sets us up to see people with differences as “separate” from us, either “less than” or “more than,” or even as an “alien” or “enemy.”
So, our physiology and social conditioning conspire against us in our efforts to practice the golden rule: “Treat others the way we want to be treated.”
Diversity books and trainings like this exist because humans need help to overcome their “natural” tendencies towards believing survival of self might necessitate destruction of another. That means people with differences.
It’s no small endeavor to look at changing physiological hardware and social engagement rules that were set into motion for our protection and survival from the beginning of human interaction. As a first step to balance the “natural” tendency towards separation, judgment, and dominance in dealing with people different than ourselves, we can turn the tables and take a look at the wonderful things, the benefits that come with being part of a diverse group.
Benefits of a Diverse Group:
When we find ourselves in a diverse group, if we allow curiosity, inquiry, and good listening to be in the forefront of our intentions, we may well find ourselves surprised by the knowledge, wisdom and creativity of people who have had markedly different experiences than our own. These folks can offer different perspectives, different answers, and different solutions – all of which may bring forth novel ideas – ones we ourselves could never have thought of simply because our experiences, our history, and our perspectives are different.
As people shift their attention to the wisdom and creativity that can been gleaned from others who are different from themselves, they begin to value diversity among people. Ultimately, this shift in attitude towards differences opens the door to creative and innovative ideas. This is how old problems get solved. Somebody comes up with a new solution. This is how any living system evolves according to the needs of the time. This is how an organization thrives.
What follows is an increase in acceptance and appreciation of differences.
I remember when I giving a workshop to a group of young people with Down Syndrome. It was my first significant immersion into a Downs population. I was invited to address them as a speaker during a celebration of sorts. It was clear that their ability to process information in the same way that the average person does was very compromised. And, I remember feeling frustrated when I tried to get a point across.
However, when amidst this community, I was taken aback by the overwhelming presence of love, and a joy that was incredibly palpable. Being in their presence brought tears to my eyes, particularly when I realized that my frustration with communicating was actually being taken over by their enormous capacity to accept me just the way I am, and shower me in a downpour of love.
Walking away from that experience, I thought to myself: I’m not so sure I taught them anything but they sure did teach me something
Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is another powerful tool, developed by David L. Cooperrider and Diana Whitney at the Case Western University in Cleveland, Ohio. AI looks for the resources that already exist in any situation, or among any population. It asks questions like, “What is the gift here?” “What is positive about this situation or person?” “How can we build on our existing strengths?”
Looking for the best in
people, drawing out, and putting to good use the gifts that each person brings
to a circle. Acknowledging others for their unique contributions, no matter how
small. These are behaviors and practices that can help fellow workers feel
seen, appreciated, and honored. When the needs of belonging, respect, and
self-esteem are met, it tends to elicit an environment of harmony and
cooperation, connection and satisfaction, and successful outcomes among the
people in that group.
When people appreciate the value that others bring, it
also elicits an increase in one’s ability to communicate effectively. People
who practice and express appreciation are more prone to cooperate and
collaborate– these are the hallmarks of any great team. They experience a more
satisfying level of connection when relating to others. They feel happier and
more fulfilled at work, and probably at home, as well. They learn basic life-skills like respect and kindness, and the ability to see and draw out the best in others.
The benefit of all of this? When people feel they are seen, heard, accepted, valued, and appreciated, they rest assuredly, knowing their social needs are being met. When these needs are met, people are happy. And, we know the bottom line: When people are happy, they do the best work for themselves and for others.
But let’s not jump ahead. We have already established a fact: it naturally takes “work” to create an environment where people get along, respect and appreciate one another’s differences, enhance their communication skills, and really connect. We also know … when this work is put in, the benefits are immeasurable – even if your main focus is the measurable results in your rising bottom line.
Now consider this:
We’re all different AND the same
There is more than one way to change our mindset when we consciously choose to embrace diversity. Simply put, we learn to shift from “them” to “us.” Our mentality takes a leap of faith, we trust the “other.”
What is our biggest challenge to making this shift? For me, one example is socio-economic boundaries. I find it a rather common practice that people of privilege (those with more pay, education, authority, influence, resources, etc.) tend to make a separation between themselves and people with fewer resources. There is a “better than” and “less than” dynamic going on behind the scenes.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to deduce that such a mindset creates conditions where people with fewer resources feel dominated, controlled, and marginalized. Why would these folks want to give their “all”? How could they possibly do their best work in such an environment? Workers must feel that there is a return for them, not just for the business, organization, or company.
Shifting-out of the mindset of the “haves” and “have-nots,” the “better-than” and “less-than,” let’s consider it is not just the guy with dark skin and a heavy accent, or the gal who’s overweight, or the young person with a limp who is “different.”
What if we held it in a different light? What if we paid attention to the fact that we are ALL different? What if we are all as unique as an individual snowflake? What if we acknowledged that every single person has his or her own unique “design,” thoughts, feelings, style, and stories (to name only a few). And, amazingly, simultaneously, we are also all the same: we ALL have commonalities. We all eat food, breathe air, need love and care, want cool stuff…. And these commonalties bind us together.
First A Closer Look at Differences
As a bit of an antidote for those who may consider that it’s only others who are “different,” let’s look at some of the many ways that people can exhibit and express differences.
I usually group differences among people into two categories: visible and invisible.
The visible (and audible) differences among people include
shape (physical structure), size (weight & height), skin color (white, black, red, yellow), hair (color, texture, and style), eye color (black, brown, blue, hazel), age (young, robust, old, wrinkled), race/geographic heritage (Pacific Islanders, Middle Eastern, Caucasian, African American, Semitic, Celtic, etc.), physical abilities (sedentary, able-bodied, athletic, paraplegic, multiple sclerosis, etc.), financial status (federal poverty level, middle class,
Now A Closer Look at Sameness
When I ask young school children to raise their hand if they think we’re all different, they all raise their hands. When I ask them who thinks we’re all the same, only one or two in a room of several hundred will raise their hand. This clearly illustrates, that even from a young age, our culture has conditioned us to place so much more of our attention on our differences.
Let’s review some obvious commonalities that all humans share (even though, within these categories, there are innumerable variances):
We all have a body and a brain. We were all born of a womb, and we were all conceived when a sperm broke open the outer layer of an egg. We all have the ability to sense and process information. We all have emotions, needs, preferences, desires, goals, imagination, and instincts. We are all alive because of our physiology, our breath, and our spirit. When we are alive, we all have the mysterious spark of life that distinguishes us from a dead person. We all have dreams, and a clear sense of how we want to be treated.
Understanding that we are in many ways equally the same as we are equally unique and special, this is another way to switch our mindset so we can more easily embrace and even celebrate differences.