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If you do not adapt, if you do not learn, you will wither, you will die.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Differences, Diversity, and Leadership – Part 2

We all know too many examples of people being treated unjustly, being excluded and bullied because they look, seem, or are different from others, whether it be because of intellectual capabilities, mental or physical disabilities, skin color, political beliefs, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, or any other reason. One of the underlying dynamics involved in this division between different people or groups is feelings of insecurity mixed with ignorance which often leads to intolerance and superiority behavior. Unfortunately, there are examples in abundance on a daily basis. Sadly enough, the topic ‘bullying’ is dominating an increasing number of media programs and school actions and we hear news casts on bullying that results in suicides. So how strong is our knowledge on dynamics like bullying and how well do we know ourselves and our own prejudices, judgments, and motivations for our actions regarding differences and diversity?
Whether you are a parent, teacher, coach, business leader or anyone else, only with leadership by compassion, by living the values, by gaining from differences and by showing yourself personally accountable will we accomplish the seemingly rare instances of truly valuing differences and seeing beyond them without having to feel insecure and threatened. Let’s take a closer look at differences and diversity. Education, social standing, religion, personality, belief structure, past experience, affection shown in the home, and a myriad of other factors will affect human behavior and culture, including behavior related to dealing with differences. For the sake of transparency, predictability, and security, as far back as many centuries ago significantly less complex societies were setting norms and using standards. Setting them automatically implies that you can deviate from these norms and standards and it will be no surprise that people for long have felt the strong need to categorize. Humans have a tendency or better, a need to categorize everything, including people. It simplifies our world and makes communication, business, education, and other areas easier and more effective, or so we believe. Stereotyping, often the result of categorizing, is one example of a potentially dangerous activity  because it tends to exclude or discriminate against people and it tries to convey something about an entire group of people, leaving individual differences out in the cold. Stereotyping also tends to include judgments on right and wrong or better and worse which will not benefit the ones that are considered ‘outside’ the standard group.

Back to business and leadership. To what extend and in what way do you and your organization use and celebrate differences? What values regarding diversity do you talk and walk? As Gregorio Billikopf of the University of California states: “Often, observations on cultural differences are based on our own weakness and reflect our inability to connect with that culture”. Faulty observations and generalizations are abundant, but the fact remains that there are many differences between cultures, between groups, and between people within groups. According to one of Michael Argyle’s studies, Latin Americans make more eye contact, face each other more, and touch more when they speak than non – Latin Americans. Or think of an Asian business partner saying “Yes”, meaning: “I hear you” rather than “I agree”. Cross-cultural observations can easily be tainted and contaminated by many factors. As we interact with people from different cultures, there is no good substitute for sharp observation skills, receptiveness, inquisitive questions, and common sense. Of course there are cultural differences, but these differences between cultures and peoples can and should add richness to all of our lives by providing us different views and ways, sparking interest and curiosity, and, above all, by providing a doorway to our own preconceptions, generalizations, and blind spots.

Maybe closer to home, many couples tend to have long-standing quarrels over serious and trivial things. Existing differences surface as people move in with each other. The most important thing, however, is how these differences are handled. Do you view them as interesting, do they spark your interest in the other person, do they help you contemplate your own beliefs and your ways of doing things, do they add juice and humor to your life and your relationship? In your relationship and in your company, is dealing with diversity a challenge, an opportunity, a way of life?

More and more companies are well on their way with great programs for increasing awareness and for enabling a different way of thinking and acting, but the road to valuing diversity and to striving for inclusion is still long and difficult. Just to name three fields, medical professionals often complain that they have trouble dealing effectively with patients from minority cultures or subcultures, many foster parents struggle in their care for children with different cultural and religious beliefs, and in too many companies people feel discriminated and treated unfairly because of their ‘being different’. How can your believing, acting, and being bring about change?

Difficult and easy complement each other.
Long and short exhibit each other.
High and low set measure to each other.
Back and front follow each other.

From the Tao Teh Ching by Lao Tzu

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