Keys to high performing teams part 7 – Value individuality, diversity, unique gifts


dog wearing party hatThis is the seventh in a series on 10 keys to High Performing Teams. You can see the original post here. This one looks at the importance of valuing and recognising people’s diverse, individual gifts and strengths.

We are each unique one-of-a-kind individuals who think differently. Yet in many workplaces we feel we have to leave our individuality at home and conform. Embracing diversity and individuality encourages people to bring more of themselves to work. Not only that, research shows that diversity drives creativity and innovation.

Diversity drives creativity and innovation

In 2011, Forbes Insights published a report on global diversity and inclusion titled Fostering Innovation through a Diverse Workforce. It was based on a survey of 321 senior executives in companies each with annual revenues over $500 million. The first of their Key Findings is that ‘Diversity is a key driver of innovation and is a critical component of being successful on a global scale.’

‘Senior executives are recognizing that a diverse set of experiences, perspectives, and backgrounds is crucial to innovation and the development of new ideas. When asked about the relationship between diversity and innovation, a majority of respondents agreed that diversity is crucial to encouraging different perspectives and ideas that foster innovation.’

Valuing diversity – a key to effective leadership.

Writing in the Harvard Business Review, May 2013, Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones explored the relationship between leadership and authenticity. ‘Simply put, people will not follow a leader they feel is inauthentic. But the executives we questioned made it clear that to be authentic, they needed to work for an authentic organization.

Unpacking the responses of hundreds of executives around this idea of an authentic organisation’ led them to describe ‘the organisation of your dreams’. It is well worth a read. ‘In a nutshell,’ they write, ‘it’s a company where individual differences are nurtured; information is not suppressed or spun; the company adds value to employees, rather than merely extracting it from them; the organization stands for something meaningful; the work itself is intrinsically rewarding; and there are no stupid rules.’

Valuing diversity – allowing people to be their unique individual selves – is the first of the six practices listed above. But as they explain, when most organisations think about diversity, they limit themselves to issues around inclusion for the traditional diversity categories of race, gender, age, physical ability etc*. What the executives they surveyed were looking for went deeper than that – they were looking at ‘differences of perspectives, habits of mind and core assumptions’.

‘The ideal organization is aware of dominant currents in its culture, work habits, dress code, traditions, and governing assumptions but … makes explicit efforts to transcend them.’

There are considerable challenges in this. As the authors note, organisations which embrace diversity at this deeper level ‘may have to forgo some degree of organizational orderliness’. Furthermore, conventional appraisal systems don’t work in such a world. They cite the example of Arup ‘perhaps the world’s most creative engineering and design company’. Who don’t use quantitative performance-measurement systems or articulate a corporate policy on how employees should progress. Instead, ‘managers make their expectations clear, but individuals decide how to meet them.’

In conclusion they write:

‘Pursuit of predictability leads to a culture of conformity, what Emile Durkheim called “mechanical solidarity.” But companies like LVMH, Arup, and Waitrose are forged out of “organic solidarity”—which, Durkheim argued, rests on the productive exploitation of differences. Why go to all the trouble? We think Ted Mathas, head of the mutual insurance company New York Life, explains it best: “When I was appointed CEO, my biggest concern was, would this [job] allow me to truly say what I think? I needed to be myself to do a good job. Everybody does.”’

I need to be myself to do a good job

Another way of thinking about this is to watch a bunch of pre-school children, one of the things which strikes you is their seemingly boundless energy. Everything they do is with 100% of their being until they move onto the next thing. As well as energy, they show amazing creativity and imagination. How can we bring those qualities into the workplace?

We need a range of  different skills and abilities to be successful

One of the reasons that I love using Talent Dynamics is that it combines a strengths-based profiling system for individuals with a systems approach to organisations. As a result, people who do this work discover not only their own special gifts and strengths to focus on, but also an awareness of the strengths that they don’t have but which  other people have which are also needed for the enterprise to succeed.

This is particularly relevant for startups. Ernesto Sirolli is the creator of one of the world’s most successful enterprise development programmes. In his book Ripples from the Zambezi he describes being asked by a government agency for his advice on how to pick ‘winners’ – the startups most likely to succeed. He replied that it came down to their ability to build and sustain teams with diverse skills. In a nutshell, there are three key competencies that an enterprise must be have to succeed: (1) Products and services; (2) Sales & Marketing; and (3) Financial measurement and control. Sirolli has never come across an individual who is naturally strong in  all three areas.

Welcome to the machine

Welcome my son, welcome to the machine.
What did you dream? It’s alright we told you what to dream.
– Pink Floyd – ‘Welcome To the Machine’ from the album Wish You Were Here

For most people as they grow up, the energy and creativity of their early years gradually diminish. First school and then the workplace teach kids to conform, to fit in. They learn that parts of themselves are not acceptable and that their creativity is only acceptable when it produces the “right” answer. As a result, they begin to shut down.

The roots of the western education system and also modern management lie in the machine age. Workers were needed for the factories where they did largely mechanical and repetitive work. In effect, the factories needed them to behave like machines. What was valued was consistency, standardisation, time spent on the job, and efficiency of output. What was not valued was diversity, creativity, questions or socialising (which could distract from getting work done). In the conventional workplace appraisal, workers are assessed on a wide range of competencies, and emphasis is given to the areas in which they are weak – in which they may be offered training. The implicit message from both work and school is ‘we want you to be a perfectly rounded individual who is just like everyone else’.

As a result, there is considerable cultural resistance to creating an organisation that embraces diversity. It needs not only structural and systemic changes, but also a shift in mindset for most people.

Discover the Other – a philosophy and a programme

This shift in mindset is what the Discover the Other programme is designed to create. It is based on a philosophy of dialogue as developed by thinkers like Martin Buber and David Bohm, and it is informed by the African culture of Ubuntu – which might be translated as ‘I am because we are’. The programme is based around four ‘keys to relationships’:

1. Stepping out of your comfort zone
Fear of the unknown ‘other’ keeps us confined to what is familiar and ‘secure’. The first step towards building better relationships is to overcome our fear and reach out. It is inevitable that we will make mistakes and maybe accidentally cause offense. Learning to deal with this with humour and humility is all part of the process.

2. Listening
Listening does not come naturally to most people. Our minds are usually too full of our own ideas, judgements and the next thing WE want to say. So we don’t take in very much of what others are saying to us.

In order to listen effectively we must learn to understand ourselves better, to become aware of our own internal filters. Difficult experiences in our past may cause us to have strong reactions to things other people say or do which are more to do with us than with them.

Yet it seems to be a basic human need that we feel others are listening to us. It means that we are understood and accepted. When we learn to really listen, and then show others that we have listened, we have a powerful tool for building better relationships.

3. Focus on ‘What is right’, not ‘Who is right’
We are all shaped by the world-view of the cultures we come from, and tend to assume that our values are the right ones. If we approach people with the attitude that our culture and values are better than theirs we get sucked into ‘compare and contrast’ arguments, which lead to division.

But how do we find ‘what is right’?

Fortunately there are core values common to all humanity and found across all the great faith-traditions:

  • Honesty – not deceiving others or ourselves.
  • Purity – freedom from being controlled by our conscious or unconscious desires, fears and insecurities.
  • Unselfishness – a commitment to fairness and justice and a willingness to share.
  • Love – a quality of the heart which lies at the root of all the core values. A readiness to let go of hatred and jealousy. A commitment to forgiveness.

Guided by these values, we can also search for the ‘inner voice of wisdom’ which speaks to us out of silence.

4. Starting with yourself.
It is always easy to point the finger of blame, to see where other people should change. Yet so long as we blame other people we remain victims, powerless to act. The only person we have power to change is… ourselves! If there is a relationship you would like to see improve and you don’t know where to start, consider the following questions:

  • Are there things that I, or my group/community, have done which are part of the problem?
  • How can I/we become part of the solution?

Make diversity a daily habit
Like so many worthwhile things, creating a culture which values each person’s unique and diverse gifts and which encourages people to be themselves at work is not something that can be built overnight. The greatest progress will be made by making it a daily habit. My recommendation would be to spend some time each day individually and (even better) as a team reflecting on the four ‘keys to relationships’ outlined above: Where are you stepping out of your comfort zone and actively seeking to engage with difference? How well are you listening? Are you able to shift from focusing on ‘who is right’ to a joint responsibility for ‘what is right’? Are you taking full responsibility for the quality of the relationship, starting with yourself?

If you do this each day, I can guarantee that you will see a depth and quality in your relationships that few organisations achieve, and that people will feel able to bring their whole authentic selves into the organisation in ways which enrich and empower everyone.

Mike Lowe Helping individuals and teams get into flow

* The roots of that may go back to the civil rights struggle in the USA. Much of the management literature and training on diversity from the USA sees diversity primarily through the lens of ensuring that people have equal rights and that organisations are compliant with equal rights legislation. The initial emphasis on racial inclusion was extended to gender issues, inclusion of people with physical disabilities and more recently to LGBTI communities.

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