Diversity at work: make a difference (3)
Monday September 18th, 2017
Monday September 18th, 2017
This blog is the third in a series of 4 about creating a culture in which diversity is not only present, but also explored and used to the business’ advantage.
Diversity is hot. Every organisation stresses the importance of ‘getting the numbers right’ these days. Every organisation tries to make minority groups disappear by creating equal chances for all. Getting the numbers right however is only step one. Organisations do not benefit when all flavours of human diversity are represented well, but different voices don’t get heard. The culture has to change, not the numbers.
A company culture is truly diverse when employees invite and welcome differences. This is a culture where people explore their differences (curiosity), can welcome different views than their own (vulnerability), feel invited to be different (make a difference) and clearly express their differences (clear communication).
In the previous 2 blogs, I introduced two key elements of true diversity: an attitude of ‘unlimited curiosity’ combined with the willingness to put yourself in a ‘vulnerable position’. But these two things will only make a difference if you have a clear goal. That is what this third blog is about: diversity only becomes visible in an organization when individuals are willing to speak up, and voice their opinion openly, with the aim to make a difference.
Willing to make a difference: this sounds so easy. Everybody will admit they want to make a difference at work. But the meaning here is deeper than just a willingness to be noticed for what we do. It is about making a conscious choice on making your voice heard – about things that matter to you – especially when your opinion differs from the common view. This requires first of all an independent mind. For those of you that read ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’ by Stephen Covey (and who did not read this?), this is about the first 3 habits of reaching a state of independence.
A little exercise I frequently conduct in leadership trainings is this one. Think about something important that is going on at work for you, and thoughtfully formulate your opinion about it. Write down this opinion as clear and sharp as possible, in no more than a few sentences. Now look back at what you wrote down, and ask yourself where this opinion has been influenced by others – positively or negatively – and write the most important influencers down in 3 bullets. These indicate the 3 dependences of your thinking on the opinion of others. You will often come to the conclusion that others had a profound influence on your opinion. Don’t get me wrong: there is nothing bad in listening to others. But when the creativity of your thinking decreases and your opinion becomes the average of what others think, you limit your thinking in a negative way. To really make a difference, it is healthy to go back to what you wrote down, and now decide: what would I write down if it was only me and I would filter out external influencers. Reformulate your statement. Finally, when your opinion has been cleared of unwanted influences of others, ask yourself whether it would be beneficial for the organization to hear your point of view. Diversity of thinking will only benefit the organization when these opinions get heard, and are shared with those who are influential as well.
This independent thinking is what I call ‘zero-based thinking’. This is the ability to have an opinion on something based on your own honest judgment, not hindered by previous knowledge about the topic or by the opinion of others. The most original ‘zero-based-thinker’ I know of was Richard P. Feynman: a brilliant physicist who formed his opinion on things he did not understand by sheer observation and own logic. He refused to read articles by other scientists or books by experts: he had confidence in his own ability to form an opinion on anything.
Doing the exercise described above will only yield results if subsequently you decide to speak up. This will be easy when you feel the safety to do so, and you know you won’t be ridiculed for the minority view you hold. Most people however will not feel safe to express an opinion that really goes against the norm. This is either because it is indeed not safe to do so, or – more often – it is because you think it is not safe. The most important thing great ideas need to find their way into the open, is a human mind that is willing to express the idea because she thinks it deserves to be heard.
Think for a moment about the ‘ideas box’ that exists in many organizations: employees can drop their improvement ideas into a box, and somebody will assess whether the ideas are worth to be used. How fantastic would it be if all unfiltered ideas would find their way into this box, rather than only the ideas people feel worth to submit? It would need a much bigger box, but it would ensure there is no unwanted censorship for all these views and opinions.
Expressing your view independently requires confidence: a deep belief that you – and the ideas you hold – are always ok, no matter what others think about it. This state of confidence is often the subject of coaching sessions many of my colleagues have with smart professionals who want to increase their effectiveness. When you feel confident enough to make yourself heard, your impact increases enormously and the organization starts to truly benefit from your competence. In line with this, programs that aim to improve ownership and accountability will need – amongst others – to focus on this aspect of leadership: a state of self-confidence. The good news is this can be learned and developed, and hence my fascination for a topic I study continuously: mental toughness.
The latter phrase ‘mental toughness’ often gives the impression that a very tough and strong attitude is required to push your ideas through, no matter what others think. This is the wrong impression and does not do the concept of mental toughness any good. True mental toughness is far from ‘arrogance’ of ‘acting tough’: much more does it have to do with strength of mind and character, to pursue your goals and express yourself clearly in order to achieve them. Aspects like resilience, goal-orientation, independent thinking and perseverance come to mind.
Bringing original ideas out in the open requires 3 things:
So what can you do to ensure that people start to express their original ideas and opinions in your organization? I give 3 tips again: