Diversity at work: make a difference (3)

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 at work


Diversity is hot. Every organization stresses the importance of ‘getting the numbers right’ these days. Every organization tries to make minority groups disappear by creating equal chances for all. Getting the numbers right however is only step one. Organizations do not benefit when all flavors of human diversity are represented well, but different voices don’t get heard. The culture has to change, not the numbers.

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).


Attitude 3: Dare to make a difference


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 training 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 whether and how 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 the 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:

  1. being crystal clear on what these ideas are
  2. filtering these ideas of unwanted external influences
  3. the courage to make your views heard, regardless of what others think


What to do?


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:

  • Practice with the team to do the exercise I described above frequently. It’s a reflection exercise that consists of checking your ideas for influences from outside. Filtering your ideas of unwanted external influences and formulating them as sharply and clearly as you can, will help you to decide how much the organization needs these ideas, and will help you increase your confidence to express yourself.
  • Install what I call ‘critical-question’-sessions. This is best done at the end of a regular team gathering and involves putting an essential question (one that is really critical for the success of your team) on the table. As a first step people can ask you clarifying questions about the issue you put on the table. Second, they formulate their own thoughts and opinions. Third, you let them brainstorm in pairs for solutions that go beyond the individual contributions. And fourth, you make everybody share their ideas and suggestions. Others are not allowed to react. At the end, you commonly decide on the option that is most worth to pursue to solve a critical issue for your team.
  • Show people you follow-up on their ideas. Collect new ideas, and always come back to the people who brought them up. Tell them what you liked about it, and why you decided to pursue the ideas (or why you decided to drop them). Be clear and open. Your aim is that people see their ideas are listened to, no matter how radical or out-of-the-box the ideas are. This will stimulate your workforce to think independently and make their voices heard.

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