Tiptoeing Around Differences


By: Kalpana Tatavarti

Okay lets talk differences…Diversity.

“Differences? Nah! I am more comfortable with similarities. Let me look for how we are similar so that I can build rapport.”

The moment we start talking about differences, there is discomfort. From the change agent who told me he does not like to focus on the differences between humans (“it is divisive”), to the manager who said he is drawn to team members who share his background/age/gender, differences continue to get pushed under the carpet.

What about women and men? Gender differences? “Oh no I don’t see them as different at all. For me, men and women are the same.”

Tiptoeing Around Differences

But the fact remains that I am different from you. My life experiences and the milieu in which I have grown up makes me think differently, take decisions differently, and problem solve differently. At an individual level we are all different, unique beings.

As Tracy Brown put it beautifully ‘Somewhere in the difference between you and me… is WE’.

And when I belong to a group, be it generational/regional/gender, that means I share certain ways of thinking and behaving with that group.

Take the way the millennials communicate at work. For them, the ability to be constantly connected to technology, their phones, their laptops, their tablets, means that they no longer feel that communication needs be limited to the office hours, changing the normal 9 to 5 hours previous generation were used to.

Let’s take gender. Research has revealed time and again how men and women are different. Barbara Annis’ pivotal book Leadership and the Sexes uses the latest brain-behavior research on gender to show how men and women’s brains are structured differently. These differences manifest in the way men and women negotiate differently, drive performance differently, and lead differently.

Mckinsey’s research uncovers how women leaders leverage some leadership competencies more than men.

When I tiptoe around differences I lose the opportunity to leverage these differences.

To my friends, the change agent and the manager, here is what I would like to say: Differences can divide… if we push them under the carpet.

But if we leverage the differences, respectfully and appreciatively, they can add tremendous value…to the team, to the organization…and to society at large.

Not surprisingly then, research has shown that diversity leads to better decision-making. When we are able to appreciate and explore different perspectives, we arrive at more holistic solutions.

We need to celebrate and embrace our differences, not deny and suppress them.

The entire drive for diversity rests on this principle.

Bryan Pelley captures this very aptly:

“I think the first important point is that I do recognize that there are gender-related differences that come into play in the workplace, and I’m comfortable acknowledging and addressing those differences directly…. I think a lot of male colleagues are uncomfortable recognizing gender differences and don’t want to call attention to them. It’s not necessarily that they aren’t supportive or don’t care, I think in some cases it’s actually motivated by a desire to treat everyone equally and not to seem like they’re coddling or belittling very capable women. I’m comfortable with the idea that treating people “equally” doesn’t actually mean treating people the same.”

I wonder if we are confusing differences in preferences and needs with differences in performance?

When we understand the difference between ‘equal’ and ‘same’, we realize that we are different but equal.

And the bottom line, performance, remains the driver to leverage the differences.

Have you had any personal experiences with diversity in your office place where it has been an advantage and helped your team solve a problem?

What are some steps you can take to ensure you embrace diversity in your office rather than shun it?

What are some ways we can articulate the advantages a different perspective can bring to your team at work?

2 thoughts on “Tiptoeing Around Differences

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