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One of the greatest challenges, and opportunities, on any team is to create synergy among team members with different backgrounds, styles, and preferences. Organizations that miss the mark on this often end up either enduring their diversity in hopes that someday it will work for them, rather than against them, or deliberately or subconsciously opting to create a homogeneous team where conflict does not exist. Unfortunately, both of these options rob the team of the synergy and the ensuing extraordinary results that could come from people of different talents and backgrounds working in concert.
These days, most progressive organizations have some sort of a diversity and inclusion program that engages employees in a variety of activities from forming affinity groups to educate team members on their differences, to enforcing quotas on diversity, and measuring and responding to various indicators of inclusion. Unfortunately, while many of these programs create a more harmonious and accommodating environment, most of them fail to produce a sustainable transformation. This is because the first step in creating a lasting transformation in how we relate to diversity is not being educated on our differences. It is the realization of just how much we're alike. Educating ourselves on our differences is a wonderful idea when lack of knowledge is the issue but it won't make a difference for those who harbor deep-seated biases and worse yet, those who are completely unaware that they have them. There is nothing like witnessing two people who were threatened by each other or considered the other their adversary come together as brothers and sisters and truly celebrate their differences rather than be threatened by them.
I have had the good fortune of witnessing and being a part of diverse teams coming together to deliver extraordinary results. I have also seen this on numerous occasions in workshops where people of different racial, socioeconomic, academic, and professional backgrounds felt closer to each other than lifelong friends after only 1-3 days of sharing without any explicit conversation about their differences.
Perhaps the most compelling example I have seen of this happened in the 1990’s when my wife and I found ourselves living in a racially divided community. There were literally segregated neighborhoods, country clubs, and other establishments… yes, in the 90’s!! Unfortunately, what it took to bring the community together came in the form of a devastating flood that affected over 70% of the homes in the area. What followed was the most beautiful display of solidarity and togetherness by members of all races and affiliations. The touching scenes of people helping each other recover from the devastation and putting each other first, regardless of the differences that just days ago kept them at odds with one another, was nothing short of amazing. In the few days and weeks following the flood people instantly developed the ability to see each other as fathers and mothers who were desperately trying to care for their families, not as black people or white people. They saw each other as husbands and wives trying to console their loved ones, not as people who lived on this side or the other side of the tracks.
I have witnessed the same phenomenon in other natural disaster situations. It is as if in the face of tragedy, we tend to set aside our differences and focus on our similarities. But why is that and can we replicate the same effect in the absence of a disaster? The answer lies in understanding just what it is about a crisis that causes us to overlook our differences. I submit that it is the fact that there are certain values and principles that we all share as human beings, and once we individually get in touch with those and relate to ourselves as who we truly are on the inside, we tend to recognize the same in others and we tend to see them as someone like ourselves. In the days after the flood, we all set aside the roles we played in life, the routines we had gotten into, and the personality traits and habits we had developed, and we related to ourselves, and therefore each other, as simply people, and in some cases, I dare say brothers and sisters.
Let’s unpack this a bit more. If you have ever observed a bunch of babies who have not yet developed language to label things, and are not capable of making up stories about themselves, others, and their surroundings, you know that there is a certain level of sameness even among babies of different ethnic backgrounds that is seemingly lost a few short months or years later. This is because when we develop the ability to speak, as we experience life’s events, we form stories about them. The culmination of our stories then result in a world view that is unique and different for each of us. We begin to relate to ourselves as the image we have constructed of ourselves based on our unique experiences and our responses to those experiences. We then wear the suit we have sewn out of the tapestry of our experiences and relate to it as our real self. Sometimes, if we don’t like how we see ourselves, we put on a trench coat of some kind, made up of our pretenses and inauthenticities, just so others don’t get to see who we really are. Of course, then as we go through life, we relate to ourselves as the man-made part and we act accordingly. At that level, we are all indeed different. Some of those differences show up in the form of useful things like our skills and talents, and some show up in the form of our biases against those who are not like us.
What happens when disaster strikes is that we, at least for a short period of time, set aside those parts of ourselves that we have made up and relate to ourselves as the divine creations that we are. And when we do, we begin to see each other through the same lens and recognize the same divine creation in others. Can this process take place in the absence of a disaster? Absolutely! It can happen when a safe space is created where people feel free to take some risk to share their hopes, fears, and aspirations. It can happen when an audacious goal is set that unites people around something they are inspired by. It can happen when a space is created in which we feel we have license ot be ourselves and we feel free to be vulnerable to expose even the parts of ourselves that we don’t like about ourselves.
It is only then that we are ready and willing to truly understand the needs and preferences of those who don’t seem to be like us. Imagine a multi-functional team who sees each other first and foremost as people, and then sales people or manufacturing people, etc. Imagine a workforce where people with different skills view each other’s strengths as an asset rather than a threat. Imagine a team where everyone genuinely wants others to succeed. As rare as this is, it is possible and it can be created if we are intentional about creating conversations and connections that cause people to see just how much more alike they are than different. That is where the magic happens and it is only then that we get to fully realize the benefits of educating each other on our differences and going out of our way to honor and celebrate those differences and capitalize on them to achieve our common objectives.
The Bottom Line: While many of the diversity and inclusion efforts we have in place serve a purpose in creating a more harmonious and accommodating environment for team members of different backgrounds, true synergy and extraordinary results are only possible when we realize that we are all much more the same than we are different. This happens quite organically when a crisis causes a community to transcend their differences and focus on their common objectives, but with leadership and intentionality, it can also be replicated in organizations.
Have a great week! May you Boldly Declare, Courageously Pursue, and Abundantly Achieve the Extraordinary! As always, I would love to hear about your victories and/or challenges. Please leave your comments below or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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