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OPENING YOURSELF UP TO “DIFFERENT”

Let’s be honest. How many of you truly embrace people, cultures and ideas that are different than your own? How many of you are schizophrenic about this: intellectually open but not in your actions? How many of you make attempts to do the right thing but find yourself horribly uncomfortable in unfamiliar waters?

Here’s what I see in most organizations: lots of lip service about diversity (people, ideas, approaches) but not much in the way of real action. I’ve written in the past about this (https://getrealleadership.com/2013/04/01/your-leadership-team-needs-other/) but I want to focus on a more personal aspect of this here.

All true stories:

  • In the midst of a five country global leadership program for the top talent of a Fortune 500 electronics company, a group of Americans scour Prague to find the nearest McDonald’s because they can’t possibly attempt to eat any Czech food.
  • When a senior executive is told he must interview a few more people to fill a director position because everyone he has met with is white he pounds his fist on the desk and declares, “This is reverse discrimination! You are telling me I have to hire someone who is less qualified for the role!”
  • An executive routinely and harshly criticizes one of her peers because “his work habits are so lax”. She goes on to say that he doesn’t use the same disciplined habits that she does. When asked if he achieves his goals in spite of those differences she responds, “I suppose but maybe his job isn’t demanding enough.”
  • At the quarterly review about how the business is doing in Latin America the regional head is challenged by her colleagues for not just marching into these branches and laying down the law. When she tries to explain how business is best conducted in Brazil she is shot down by several Americans who have never set foot in a Latin American country.
  • An SVP is told by her boss that she “needs to be more forceful in the leadership meetings.” “Do you mean that I am not making a firm case for my point of view?” she asked. “Oh no. You do fine with that. I mean that you have to be more combative at times like the rest of us.” To which she said, “Are you having this same conversation with mild mannered Joseph?”

I’ve got tons more of these but you get my point. We human beings can be so judgmental and rejecting when we encounter different. Anything that smacks of “not like me” can create some pretty extreme reactions and thoughts.

Think about yourself. Think of a situation, place, type of person or point of view that makes you uncomfortable. Something that is not your norm. (You are a liberal and meet a conservative at a party. You take a trip to a foreign country. You are a digitally wired person who has to work closely with a luddite. You are the only white person on a team of people of color.) Can you name what makes you so uneasy? Do you have a personal catalogue of past negative experiences in this situation? Does your peer group talk trash about this? Are you just awkward when you are in new situations?

For most of us that discomfort is fear. I would even say that, for most of us, that fear is benign. It is born out of inexperience, naiveté, ignorance and very limited life exposure. For others, that fear is fueled by malicious misinformation and/or a need to remain top dog at all moments.

For you folks who are anxious about trying new things, being around people who are different and tightly tied to your version of reality…If you hope to ascend in your organization you better find a way to get over all this. You cannot remain this insular and expect to be in a top role. If your fears of differences come from lack of exposure, change that now. Get out into the world, travel, learn another language, watch foreign films, read books that are contrary to your beliefs, eat at ethnic restaurants, go to a gospel concert…anything that expands your world view. If you are immobilized by your fears, seek counseling help. Seriously, you need to move past this.

But if your fears have malevolent intent we’re talking about something else entirely. This is not an ordinary degree of discomfort that we all experience when we venture out from our “pack”. This fear has an end game in sight: I am best, I am right, I win and you get nothing. If you take a closer look at this you will see that this is a twisted defense mechanism to ward off all intruders. It is meant to keep that person comfortable…safe from anything or anyone that threatens his position or beliefs. So he attacks, denies, disregards or demeans the object of his concerns. Again, this is a self protective move…but it manifests in ugly ways.

Here is a way to test which side of the coin you fall on.

  • When you are in a discussion with someone who has a different point of view are you likely to raise your voice or jab your finger or declare “stupidity”? Do you take things to an extreme? Is your intent to emerge the victor by crushing the other person? Do you lose sight of the content in favor of winning?
  • When you are in a new setting and unsure about how to fit in do you put yourself at center stage? Do you tell stories about yourself to grab the attention of these new people? Do you tell off color jokes to disarm others? Do you go on and on about how great your (country, team, heritage, ideas) are without inviting any dialogue?
  • When someone who is not your race or gender enters the room do you ignore them entirely? Do you argue every point they make? Do you defer to the people who are like you?
  • Do you have persistent thoughts about how you (your ideas, your gender, your group) are better than others? Do those thoughts lead to aggressive actions to make it clear to everyone that you reign supreme? Do you surround yourself with people who reinforce your perspective and actively exclude others? Are your opinions etched in stone, finely honed and never to be challenged?

It’s about the level of hostility that emerges from ordinary fears and anxieties. We all experience discomfort in new or unfamiliar situations but only some of us will turn it into a battleground. Just look around. It is the colleague with a very short fuse who explodes when challenged even slightly. It is the leader who selects team members that all look and sound just like him. It is the executive who rails against an entire country or category of people as sub-human. It is the zealot who doesn’t make any sense to most but will make it their life’s work to self righteously scream a position.

My message to those of you who are stuck in your deeply ingrained fears…and hostility…things will eventually catch up with you. For now you may be benefitting from survival of the fittest but that won’t last in today’s reality. You are a liability to your company and those in power will remove you. Don’t be deluded that your behavior will be tolerated indefinitely because you are bad for the business. And in the end, that trumps all.

And for those of you who are managing these belligerent ones…try as you may, they are not likely to reform. All the decent coaching and feedback sessions will only generate momentary change…just long enough to get you off their backs. For them to truly change they have to be motivated to do so. And as long as they see themselves as winning there is nothing to trigger that. Bosses usually take too long to remove these folks so I suggest you take action sooner than later. The staff will thank you.

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