The magic of difference

Jul 12 2010 by Jane Gunn Print This Article

Difference and diversity can be seen as a threat in organisations and teams but here are three important things you can do to discover the magic of difference.

An electronics company is conducting interviews for a new HR Director. They have a shortlist of two; Henry, already working in the electronics field, a "safe pair of hands" and Lizzie, moving from an IT company, who is regarded as "a bit of a maverick"

The existing board members are all much more like Henry than Lizzie in character and approach but on the day the company choose Lizzie because she is much more dynamic and energetic.

Carl the CEO who conducted the final interview is sure that Lizzie will settle into the job but his fellow directors have not shared his optimistic view and 6 months later, Carl has received a number of "confidential" emails from some of the other directors complaining about Lizzie's style of management and asking Carl to "Do something about it"

Diversity Rocks the Boat

On the face of it there is a conflict brewing between Lizzie and the other directors and if this is not handled quickly and effectively, may well turn into a full-blown and expensive dispute.

Let's take a closer look at what may be going on.

As humans, we have an instinctive fear and distrust of people who we perceive as different to us and we often find it hard to understand why they think and operate as they do.

What people often mean by getting rid of conflict is getting rid of difference and getting rid of difference can mean getting rid of diversity.

World View

Everything that has happened to us from the moment we are born influences the way we see and experience the world around us and the people we meet – this is our world view – our values, attitudes and beliefs.

When we meet and have to work with someone who has a totally different set of values, attitudes and beliefs to ours, it can pose quite a challenge.

Our initial approach may be to try to persuade them to change the way they do things, so sure are we that our view and our way is best. Worse still we may try to force them to change their mind and/or their style.

So the director's response to Lizzie may be based upon an instinctive fear of difference. Much in the same way as a bunch of school children will pick on a quirky child who doesn't quite fit at school.

Prehistoric not modern

Imagine how you feel when faced with anyone who expresses a totally different view to yours, whether it's about sport, politics, religion or anything else you feel particularly passionate about.

Whoever they are and wherever you both are the natural reaction is to try to WIN the debate. To prove that they are totally wrong and that you are completely right.

Unfortunately our response to difference and to conflict is prehistoric in origin. We are afraid of difference – even differences of opinion and tend to react instinctively to protect ourselves.

Faced with working with someone who has a totally different approach to life, holds a different set of values or behaves in a different way to us we may:

  • Be aggressive towards them
  • Ignore them
  • Try to sabotage their efforts
  • Gossip about them behind their back

But the alienation of someone who is different in the workplace can have devastating and costly consequences leading to lowered productivity, damaged relationships and even lawsuits – not great for business!

Finding value in difference

Think about the world around us. Without difference of any kind there would be no possibility to add value or to grow.

If every organization was filled with like-minded people, who would there be to challenge the status quo? Who would test the assumptions and question the way that "things are done around here"?

If the directors instead of feeling threatened by Lizzie and her approach to the business, could take the view that her arrival represents an opportunity for them to review and update some of their working practices, rather than a personal threat, then they could avoid the situation turning into a conflict.

Accept the Gift

To accept the gift of difference, we must be willing and able to look beyond it to understand each human being as a unique individual and to embrace the possibilities presented to us.

And remember, there are three key things we can do to discover the magic of difference.

1. Be willing to seek to understand each other

2. Be ready to change ourselves

3. Be prepared to collaborate to find value


About The Author

Jane Gunn
Jane Gunn

Jane Gunn, otherwise known as 'The Corporate Peacemaker', is an expert in conflict management and author of 'How to Beat Bedlam in the Boardroom and Boredom in the Bedroom: A life changing guide to happiness at work and at home'.