Strive to be different


We are drawn to people who are similar because we understand them. We can predict their behavior. We enjoy the fact that they understand us. They make us feel stronger affirmed. People who are different from us make us uncomfortable. They make us wonder whether we are wrong. They act in ways we dont understand. They make us feel weaker.

But it is exactly in those differences that our combined strength lies, not in the comfort of our overlapping beliefs, values and ideas. This may sound like a platitude, but many of us regularly choose comfort over challenge.

The power of differences

As leaders in business, we need to remind ourselves of this whenever we create and work with teams. We prefer to work with people who are similar because you can go faster, but are you sure your outcome is as good as it could be? We want things to go easy and smooth, but is that really the path to the best outcome?

Different is difficult and unsettling because it challenges us to let go of the certainty and safety of our beliefs and to consider that our perspective may not be the only answer. It challenges us to embrace the ambiguity of dealing with multiple possible ways, perspectives, or answers.

Different is slower. because it requires us to suspend judgment and decisions until we have considered the different approaches and possibilities.

Different is fractious. Because it requires us to highlight our differences, rather than smooth them over it requires us to proactively disagree.

Yet different is better. Because through this difficult, unsettling, slow and fractious process we gather new perspectives, ideas, possible answers and ways of doing things a treasure trove from which a better answer, idea or approach will likely arise.

As leaders we need to embrace the fact that collaboration should not be smooth sailing. We need to accept that harmony is not the ideal. So instead of seeking to create teams in which all differences have been blunted into a smooth harmonious whole, we need to build diverse teams which truly foster and leverage the diversity of thinking generated by people from different generations, genders, orientations, cultures and personalities.

Building a diverse team requires a lot of its leader as she or he needs to foster a deep sense of cohesion amongst its dissimilar team members. People feel a sense of belonging with people who are similar because they feel understood. A diverse team, which is all about being dissimilar, can therefore also come together and feel a deep sense of cohesion if they truly learn to understand each other. This requires a long-term focus on helping people understand intergenerational, gender, multicultural and personality differences as well as coming together as a team to develop strategies to both effectively work across as well as leverage those differences.

Sounds like a huge challenge? It is, but if we as leaders truly want the best for our organizations then we need to rise to the challenge. Moreover, the reality of our work place is becoming more diverse by the minute. It all starts with us leaders and our willingness to get uncomfortable and start learning how to do this.

A team discovery of differences

Many of you may have at one point or another conducted a personality assessment in your team. But how many of you have proactively explored how cultural, intergenerational and gender differences between your people impact how they work together? And how many of you are still actively using the insights from that team personality assessment?

You get the gist. It is time to start proactively exploring those differences. But exploring them once as a team building gimmick is not going to make a difference. This is more about starting a conversation. Fostering a team culture that appreciates and leverages differences requires tact and persistence, because at first it will create discomfort and resistance.

Start by doing your homework on intergenerational, gender, multicultural and personality differences. Below we have provided a list of resources. Once youve found your footing start the conversation in a structured and explicit way. Explain to your people why you want them to gain a true appreciation of each others differences. Guide them on that journey of discovery and be sure to make it psychologically safe for all involved.

And remember that this is not just about building an understanding of their differences, but also about together developing strategies to work more effectively across those differences as well as to discover how they might leverage those differences to work better together.

Develop a framework for team emotional intelligence

As we mentioned earlier, embracing differences is difficult and unsettling and can be frustratingly slow and requires disagreement. Navigating such an emotionally charged process as a team requires true team emotional intelligence.

As per Daniel Goleman, an emotionally intelligent person is someone who is able to monitor one’s own and others’ emotions, understand them, and use this information to constructively guide one’s thinking and actions. But a team’s emotional intelligence isn’t simply the sum of its members’ emotional intelligence. Instead, a group’s emotional intelligence is its ability to create a shared set of norms that foster awareness of and manage the emotions of the individuals within a team, the team itself, and towards people outside the team.

For example, a discussion between people who have been explicitly asked to think independently can be emotionally challenging for all involved, so a diverse team needs a process (which eventually becomes a habit) to pick up on, seek to understand, and manage the emotions of its individual members. This can for example involve rules for how to engage in proper constructive dialogue as well as ground rules for how to deal with emotions, for example by asking people to name it when strong feelings bubble up and start interfering with their interaction.

The team also needs a way to manage the team spirit. For example, a diverse team has a tendency to get a little intense at times, so the team needs to have a way to hit the decompression button. This can involve establishing a habit to check the team mood as well as regular team review meetings which solely focus on reviewing how well the team collaborates.

You as the leader cannot unilaterally legislate these norms. You have to discuss and design such a framework of norms together with the team. A great resource to deepen your understanding of how to foster team emotional intelligence is the book written by Marcia Hughes and James Bradford Terrell titled The Emotionally Intelligent Team: Understanding and Developing the Behaviors of Success

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