Learning from Differences
Differences are the only sources of learning we have. Now, that’s a bold statement! Think about it. Can you think of something you’ve learned that didn’t come from something different? Some people think that I’m rather brilliant; however, if you put me in a room full of clones of me, there is nothing I can learn from any of them. I already know everything they know. I could learn from you though, simply because you are different from me in thoughts, beliefs, life experience, etc. If you can come up with something other than differences that we might learn from, please share in the “Comments” areas below!
For the moment, let’s go with the notion that differences really are the only source of learning we have. When used for learning, differences become the precursor of synergy, wherein the whole is greater than the sum of its parts; creativity, where something new is brought into the world; and the new productivity that can come from both synergy and creativity. Peter Senge in The Fifth Discipline wrote of “The Learning Organization” which became a popular goal that has only rarely been achieved. Why has such a worthy goal been so difficult to accomplish? Too often, however, differences are used too finitely to determine who wins and who loses. Without thinking too much, who wins if it’s more vs. less, top vs. bottom, or fast vs. slow? Who traditionally wins if we focus on white vs. black or male vs. female?
When stuck in a win/lose mode, differences are the source of wasteful power struggles or creativity-deadening conformity aimed at avoiding power struggles. Too often, organizations overvalue conformity—those with critical information or new or differing ideas are warned not to “rock-the-boat” making sound and current data a rare commodity. The Bay of Pigs and Challenger disasters are but two highly dramatic examples of this phenomenon. New, differing, and needed ideas are too often stifled by our need to be safe within finite organizational cultures.
The ability to learn from differences is a critical use-of-self and use-of-group skill for leaders and other change agents. It will support them in maintaining the systemic, non-judgmental perspective necessary to use the differences within their systems for the learning and synergy needed to collaboratively invent an effective change process. Given our socialized propensity toward operating from the finite perspective, this is more easily said than done. The infinite perspective helps as it allows change managers the support of strong and long-lasting partnerships and teams. Such support is doubly critical when the stress of change has moves us swiftly back to the traditional, conformity-oriented way of operating. With support a speedy return to learning from differences can then be provided as needed.
Learn to Make a Difference in the World of People, Teams, and Organizations http://bit.ly/zFCNfv
This headline assumes that one accepts that discrimination in hiring still exists. Well, I was recently asked to write an essay on whether I think racism in hiring still exists, how I feel about it, and how it can be counteracted. A portion of that essay follows:
“Do I believe that racism in hiring still exists? Yes, I believe that racism – and ageism and sexism – in hiring still exists. I also understand how easy it is to wonder if these are at play in the absence of sound and current data in specific situations.” (Is that recruiter not calling me back because s/he’s discriminating against me? Or is s/he just rude? Or swamped out of his/her gourd?)
“How do I feel about it? It is frustrating – as a job seeker, and as a hiring manager, and as a recruiter. It is frustrating to wonder – and sometimes not even need to wonder – why excitement turns to chill, why enthusiasm turns to silence, why a pending job offer turns to excuses. It makes me scared and angry that circumstances beyond my control affect me or friends and colleagues, angry that stupidity and excuses can be allowed to win out over fairness and hard work.
“Those are the easy questions.
“It isn’t actually that difficult to determine who is the best candidate for the job – if one is open to people who are different from one’s self. A good hiring process focuses on being clear about the requirements of the position, the duties of the position, the skills required to fulfill those duties, the ideal amount of experience required, and the “stuff you can’t teach” such as self-management, communication skills, analytical skills, and values such as honesty, work ethic, and so on.
“But these criteria for determining who is the best candidate for the job assume that there is not an unspoken criterion that the candidate looks like the interviewer. Humans are hardwired in their lizard brains to gravitate to those who are similar. Differences are dangerous in an eat-or-be-eaten-world.
“The good news is that we are not lizards. We are human, with a lot more to our brains than the lizard portion. We can utilize those higher brains to overlook or – better yet – appreciate differences.
“Which brings us to the hard question about racism in hiring: How do you counteract it? By fostering a sense of curiosity. At all stages and in all of the players, and first of all in ourselves. If we are willing, we can find out that life is just so much more interesting when we interact with people who are different. Not only that, but we can learn so much more. We must be curious as interviewers, and as job seekers, and as co-workers. It is not the job of just one side to be curious – we must all be willing to be curious. Anger has its place, but curiosity is more effective. Secondly, we must foster curiosity in others, by encouraging them to be interested, by helping them feel safe, and by lovingly calling attention to fear and lack of curiosity when they pop up. Finally, we must encourage curiosity in children so that we have less work to do in that area when they are adults.
“Legislation and political correctness will never solve the problem at its source. But we can do it through being conscious of our own tendencies, fostering curiosity, and providing opportunities for learning.”
I admit this makes practicing curiosity sound easy. I’ve been asked, “If it’s that easy, why don’t people do it more often?”
That’s a good question. I think the answer is: It is easy. But I also think there are several reasons more people don’t practice curiosity. The first is just habit; it’s easy to get comfortable. Another, more insidious reason is that we think we know the truth, and we think we know about people who are different from us.
But I think the main reason is Fear. Fear of admitting I don’t know something. Fear of being wrong (and of people finding out). Fear of being punished for not conforming. Fear of looking Dumb. Fear of having my worldview changed, which can feel like chaos.
Being curious takes a little courage. Courage to be vulnerable, courage to change my mind, and courage to create a safe environment for others to be curious. But being curious is also fun, and it makes life a lot more interesting. Are you up for it?
Susan T. Blake is an organization development professional and coach whose background includes management experience and a tour of duty as an award-winning recruiter. A graduate of the Triple Impact Practitioners Program, Susan writes about systems thinking, team building, curiosity, management lessons she’s learned from spiders and her cats, and other topics that make her wonder in her blog at http://susanTblake.com.
On the web site you’ll find an article: “Anatomy of an Effective Diversity Initiative.” Diversity initiatives have often been successful at adding color to various organization levels, but learning from that diversity too often seems suppressed by the need for comformity of thought and beliefs. Accordingly, the nine points emphasize curiosity rather than sensitivity as a major strategy. If we can be curious about our differences we just might learn something new—the heart of innovation, process improvement, and productivity increase. That’s in contrast to the sensitivity approach which seems to have everyone walking around on egg shells pretending that differences don’t exist which shoves our prejudices further underground rather than informing them. You can find it at http://www.chumans.com/human-systems-resources/diversity.html.
Doing the work of organization development takes courage as we attempt to shift a culture that does not want to shift. In particular, the diversity work (as an aspect of OD) takes particular courage as there are sharp emotions in play which give rise to fear. When we act forthrightly in the presence of fear, we are called courageous. What, then, helps create courage? Principle! “Principles are the main ingredient of courage. A (person) with principles can get the better of fear.” This is from a Scott Turow character in his novel Ordinary Heroes.
Why else would we act in a direction other than where our fear would point us?