Engaging Our Humanity

Diverse group of school children
At what stage do we differentiate ourselves from others based on difference?

Diversity is about acknowledging and honouring the difference in people and groups. By necessity that is the difference between ourselves and others in terms of what we value, how we view the world, what we each consider makes the world work best, physical and cultural characteristics, and any other form of difference that may be recognised. Over the past few months I have become increasingly aware of examples where difference is feared and of behaviours used to distance self from those who are different. The key word to summarise these behaviours is ‘Objectification’, a process of dehumanising others so what we think, feel or do has less personal/moral significance.

There are many forms of objectification. Some historic and current examples I am aware of include:

  • A common complaint by women is that men objectify them. A woman, for instance, is seen for sexual utility, and not for the person she is. I grew up with the proverbial Playboys under my bed, and I spent a lot of time noticing ‘attractive qualities’ and disregarding those I deemed unattractive. As unpleasant as this demeaning process is, it is very common. Now with the availability of pornography, objectification of those meeting a person’s sexual preferences is even more prevalent and pronounced. They become sexual objects to be used, whether in reality or fantasy, rather than people who hold intrinsic value as themselves.
  • In 1974, Marina Abramović, a performance artist, stood for six hours with the audience invited to use any of 72 objects on her as they desired, Marina taking full responsibility for the consequences. Some were objects of pleasure. Others were destructive. Initially little happened, other than photographers taking pictures. Then people started to touch her, move her. She was then touch intimately. Items were attached to her. A man cut her neck with a razor blade. Her clothes were cut off. A loaded gun was put in her hand and aimed at her head. By the end of six hours Marina’s body was a canvas of how others had objectified her and taken licence because she was “an object” and they faced “no consequences”. When the six hours was finished, the gallery announced the exhibition had concluded, and Marina then moved and walked among the audience. No one would engage with her, experience the confrontation of what was done by them to a real person. (See article about the exhibition and an interview with Marina Abramović about the exhibition)
  • Hitler’s regime is well recognised for concentration camps and the heinous treatment of those sent to the camps. Jews are well known as targets of the cruel and barbaric treatment. Other groups singled out for specific attention included blacks, homosexuals, gypsies, those with disabilities, among others. Growing evidence highlights North Korea’s atrocious treatment of their own people, where three generations of a family may be sent to “work” camps for life for supposed crimes of one of the family. Starvation, torture and other acts of cruelty are alleged to abound. Recently allegations have been made that Chechnya has set up internment and torture camps for anyone who is, or is thought to be, part of the LGBTQ community, with abductions and murders apparently becoming more prevalent.
  • In the early 1970’s Ford fast-tracked its design and production of the Pinto, getting it to market with a design flaw it knew about. A low speed, rear-end impact caused the fuel tank to rupture. Deaths occurred. It took the tragic deaths of three teenagers in a fire ball, as they were going to church, to initiate a recall. Part of the decision to release the car with a known severe fault was a cost-benefit analysis. A dollar value was placed on a person’s life, and the fix (about $10 per car) applied to all cars cost more than the likely number of deaths multiplied by the value of a human life. In this case a human life became a financial object and an unethical decision was made.
  • A common approach within organisations is to consider and treat people as resources. This allows the utility of a person to be assessed, valued and applied (or discarded) based on operational merit. The approach allows decisions to be made that impact people with the decision maker holding a sense of distance from the human consequences. The same is true of a general choosing to send military forces against an enemy. While such analysis and decision making is needed for the machinery of civilisation to grind on, they are example of objectification.
  • People with Autism (and Asperger’s Syndrome, which has now been merged into Autism) tend to view other people as objects in their world, without much or any of the usual sense of human connection. Their objects can be interfaced and interacted with. There are objects that hold more meaning than others, such as parents, who are familiar and serve a more significant function than others. Those with Autism rely on objectification to define their world.
  • Stereotyping, whether by age, religion, gender, education, culture, colour, or any other attribute, is used to define difference and distance self from the group based on difference. That ‘difference’ may be perceived similarity when speaking as ‘we believe…’, ‘we want…’, ‘we hate…’ etc.
  • Gossiping is a marvellous way to objectify. The target of such stories, whether those stories are fact-based or not, becomes isolated and excluded from the group, the object of bullying, without necessarily knowing it is going on, by whom or why.

The antidote for objectification is engaging your humanity, which enables us to see and recognise the intrinsic uniqueness and value of each person, and feel compassion. If we hold a question open around who they are it is more difficult to objectify and dehumanise them. Their “differences” become a matter for inquiry and inquisitiveness, a chance to meet someone new and perhaps gain an alternative perspective on life. Often our fears of ‘the other’ are rooted in ignorance, and insecurity about our own sense of self, and whether we will survive meaningful connection.

How many wars, crimes and aggressions would happen if both sides truly sought to understand the views and perspectives of the other, allowed themselves to see the humanity (including vulnerabilities and frailties) of the other, without wishing to crush and exercise power over them.

In what ways would the assessment of a person’s value shift in a business environment if more humanity was applied? How would it impact culture and values of the workplace?

How do you recognise, acknowledge and value difference? In what ways do you objectify others? What would happen to those relationships if you were to connect with them with genuine interest to know them as people of value? Would decisions and actions you take in work and other settings be different if you recognised the humanity of those your decisions impact? Have you ever tried to reverse roles with others to gain insight into different views and beliefs?

If you choose to engage with this area of exploration, it can open a rich wealth of learning and meaningful human connection.

Pause Your Judgement and Notice the Beauty

Steam locomotive
A beautiful example of a steam locomotive

I had a wonderful experience the other day that reminded me of my own biases and judgements. I got to see them clearly, and the beauty that exists in those I might judge. I was richer for the increased awareness.

I caught the train into Wellington city and one of the conductors collecting tickets walked along and clicked each ticket and said in a very robotic, short, sharp fashion, “Thank you.” He was stern looking and seemed quite stiff in his body. Click. “Thank you”. Click. “Thank you.” Click. “Thank you.” My judgement: he was bored to tears and going through a learned process or routine. Then magic happened. He finished the ticketing process and stopped to chat with a small group. His whole being softened. His face lit up. He changed roles and was instantly a bright, engaging, excited and friendly character. In that moment, for me, he shifted from being alien and difficult to fathom to a beautiful and vibrant human being. I got to see the problem with my own biases and judgements.

Judgement is a very natural survival- and fear-based process that occurs within milliseconds of meeting anyone. It enables us to simplify the complexity of life and make decisions quickly. It was massively helpful when walking around a corner and meeting a sabre toothed tiger or a mammoth, or a strange cave person. It does help us now as well. Is this a hostile or a friendly audience? Is my customer pleased to see me, irritated, or angry? Judgement is natural and essential. It is not always accurate. Some of our judgements are biases we have learned, as children from our parents or from our own experiences. Often they are very contextual and then get applied generally. They limit our openness to others, particularly those we judge as different.

A friend of mine, who has some clear understanding of some of his biases, was taking his daughter to choose a new school. In meeting with the principal, he heard, paraphrased, “We are largely a white school”. His response: “I may be a racist but that doesn’t mean my daughter has to be.” They went looking for a different school.

Research highlights that diversity in our teams and organisations creates an environment where we get better solutions and results. The varied opinions, experiences, thinking processes, however annoying we may find them from time to time, create variation that challenges and improves the outcomes.

I remember an organisation that decided project managers must be Myers-Briggs ENTJ. Any other type was excluded from being a project manager. Their projects all had a common look and feel, and failed to respond to variation in a similar fashion. It is difficult to learn from others when those others are the same as you. In a different organisation I had consulted with them for several months, and had worked with the manager in a different context for several years. Then, because he was considering offering me a permanent role, he had me psychometrically assessed. I did well in all the cognitive and behavioural aspects, but he turned me down for the role because, in his opinion my Myers-Briggs suggested I was a business analyst, not a project manager. That was a thoroughly unscientific judgement based on his own misuse of the tool. This was in spite of him having observed me as a successful project manager in a variety of different contexts over the years we had known each other.

What challenges are you aware of in building diversity and inclusion in your teams and organisations? What benefits have you noticed? What judgements get in your way? Do you surround yourself with those you feel comfortable with or do you actively engage with those who are different from you, who may challenge your ideas? What value is lost when there is a push for sameness rather than diversity?

What Story Do You Carry?

You get to choose which stories you use!
You get to choose which stories you use!

I felt moved as I read the transcript from a Ted Talk given by the Nigerian author, Chimamanda Adichie, titled “The Danger of a Single Story”. She spoke of her early love of reading, initially always Western children’s books. When she wrote stories in school they mirrored what she had read, not her experience. Later she went to university in the USA. Her roommate met her and voiced stereotyped expectations of her, a view developed from the stilted view portrayed in Western media of the African “country”. A professor even rejected her writing, now of her experiences in growing up, as not being authentically African, because she wrote of reading and speaking English, having a happy childhood, and not to his flawed idea that all of Africa was war torn, starving and destitute. She shared other stories of a similar ilk.

We all carry stories. A few may be inspiring, liberating and expansive. These rare gems will act to open the mind to possibilities and lift judgements placed by others to uncover potential. I am all for this type of story.

Generally, the stories we naturally carry are restrictive, declaring the nature of groups and individuals based on their fit to some specific characteristic. As such they cloud our ability to see others as they are when the stories we apply (without even realising it!) rule out any other possibilities as being reasonable. They get in the way of us appreciating the diversity of others. They are essential for bigotry to occur. The stories separate people, cultures, groups, nations, political parties, gangs and peer groups. Their liberal use stops us seeing others for who they really are, and connecting in a meaningful manner. With a story clouding our perception we tend to mentally validate our story by finding any matching attributes, and filtering any mismatch. It is a mechanism the brain uses to simplify processing the complex data. It leads to erroneous and limiting judgements: “This person is a … therefore”:

  • they are …
  • their experience and background is …
  • they judge me as …
  • they expect …
  • they cannot …
  • they don’t know …
  • they value …
  • They are different from me because …
  • they should be [pitied / hated / loved / shunned / included / excluded / listened to / … ] because …

And so the list goes on.

The really interesting thing is we also can and do carry stories about ourselves. All the above may be rephrased with “I” instead of “they”. We then have a belief about ourselves that indicates the story we hold about who we are, what we can achieve, our strengths and weaknesses. This story is often inherited from our childhood, and we then fail to update the story as we grow and develop. We can hear old stories of ourselves from inside that are long out of date. Unchallenged, they persist. Even when they are challenged, these old familiar stories return on the slightest indication that they will be tolerated.

A great thing about coaching is the powerful assistance it can provide in recognising and adjusting the stories you work with.

How Can I Respond Usefully to a Story I Carry?

First, recognise that any of the above sample scripts, or others similar in intent, are running. Whether about you or someone you are meeting, these statement of judgement are a clear indication a story is running, that you are generalising about this person based on some arbitrary criteria.

Second, acknowledge to yourself that this process is limiting your perception and there may be a different or broader perception to be had of this person. Again, this applies as much to stories about ourselves as it does of those about others.

Third, ask questions of yourself that open your mind to alternatives. Examples include:

  • What [does this person / do I] bring to this situation that is of value and different from what I know (I.e. my current story)?
  • What do I notice about [this person / me] in this situation that is outside my previous experience (I.e. Different from my story of them)?
  • What is one thing of value [this person bring / I bring] that I hadn’t recognised and acknowledged? What’s another one?

Each of these questions serves to challenge the mind in a way the mind likes to be challenged. They are open questions asking for investigation and inquiry. The mind will respond with answers, and in so doing will have to adjust the story it was carrying. That said, some stories are so deeply burned into our psyche that it will take many such intentional challenges to create a shift to a new one.

Forth, actually engage with the person in an open dialogue, mentally holding the possibility that your story is incomplete or incorrect. Become a ‘naïve inquirer’ and ask questions of them to understand who they really are and what matters to them.

One of the stories I carry about myself is “I am inadequate.” That shows up in almost every context, is generally thoroughly unfounded, and the monotony of repeatedly retraining my brain can be frustrating. However, the breakthrough of doing so is worthwhile because then I shift mentally and emotionally into a free space where productive action becomes possible. In fact, when I step out of my story of inadequacy the question about success does not show up. I am in the “zone” and make things happen as a matter of course, the mind not interfering.
What is getting in your way with yourself or others? What groups or individuals do you exclude because …? Are you prepared to entertain the possibility that the stories you hold may be invalid, even if only for the person in front of you?

Freeing yourself of the limiting effect of stories opens the possibility of new and exciting opportunities, relationships and outcomes. Which of your stories needs to be dropped? All the best with the adventure of redrafting your world through changing your stories.

You are so different to me!

Differences coming to the fore
A team with some unmanaged differences

Have you ever done the “I see red” activity? Look for and silently name all the items in the room that are red. Now close your eyes and recall all the blue items. If you have gone blank, or at least had some difficulty in doing that, don’t worry, you are normal! When the mind has been oriented to focus on something specific it is very difficult to disentangle and see another perspective.

Some people are pessimists and overwhelmingly see the negative or the threat in a situation. That can be highly beneficial if you are a risk manager. The optimists see the positive in any situation. Both struggle to understand the perspective voiced from the other end of the continuum. Examples of other continuums include introversion/extroversion, thinking/feeling, judging/perceiving, sensing/intuiting and orientations to big picture/detail, certainty/uncertainty, action/fact gathering etc. And then there are those beliefs, values and perceptions we have adopted from childhood, tribal, cultural, social, economic, political and other influences and experiences. There are a myriad factors that combine to create the way you are and the way I am.

Collectively they shape our perceptions of the world, our attitudes and expectations, and obscure other perceptions to some degree. Whatever we have learned to see, from all these factors, is what we see as we live and experience life. Most of these influences are invisible to us, and yet they powerfully steer us in terms of who we are drawn to or repulsed by, what we believe is possible, who we trust and how much, how we deal with ambiguity and change, and our capacity to work with others. These same influences also shape groups of people, teams, organisations, countries etc.

It is almost surprising, given all this, that we ever find any common ground. Fortunately, in any given situation, only a small portion of these influences show up. When we start to feel a rubbing, a developing hot spot, or blatant conflict, there is something arising that is causing a difference of opinion. Whether in relationship with another person, or within a team or organisational context, the results you achieve will depend on how you handle those points of friction.

When the friction relates to what is being worked on, harnessing differences of opinion can be extremely valuable, even if some find that quite frustrating. If the friction arises from judgement and criticism of another person, then it is damaging and detrimental. Recognising our biases with respect to others and finding a way to navigate these respectfully enables rich and fertile material that will aid the quality of your thinking processes. This is often a good time to engage a team coach who is not embroiled in the work activity. The team coach can draw attention to and strengthen the group process and help your team unleash its full potency.

New Problems Require New Thinking

“Sometimes it is the people who no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine” – The Imitation Game, 2014

It is 1939 and Britain is losing ground in the war against Germany because Germany has an unbreakable coding machine – the Enigma. At the same time, Britain has a socio-cultural environment where homosexuality is outlawed, women are allowed to study, but frowned upon if they do anything more than clerical work and particularly if they work alongside men.

In comes an undercover homosexual with Asperger’s-like behaviour, an actively sponsored woman and four other men who fit the mould of what is considered ‘normal’. A period of much interpersonal conflict follows, but five and a half months later, out comes a machine that not only allows the timely decoding of German messages, saving millions of lives and pounds, but also forms the basis for a device we now all take for granted – the computer.

The film “The Imitation Game”, a dramatized version of the work of Alan Turing and his team during the second world war, is a thought provoking depiction of the trials and tribulations of a team that mitigated their biases to hire the best team available and then actively worked to accept each other’s differences and leverage the diversity of thought that became available when difference was valued.

What enigma is your organisation grappling with? Product innovation? Service innovation? Business model innovation? Globalisation? Digitisation? Whatever the enigma, it will not be solved with yesterday’s thinking, but by the collaborative work of teams who value difference and the diversity of thought it brings.

Ensuring that your organisation has what it takes to recruit the best people in the market and then helping teams to value and leverage the difference of people, takes conscious effort. You see, all of us, whether we like it or not, have conscious and unconscious biases about people. Left unmitigated, this keeps us from making the best hiring decisions and impacts our ability to engage, develop and retain people who are different to us. Organisations that mitigate these biases and develop cultures where differences are valued and leveraged report benefits of improved innovation and creativity, new market penetration and customer loyalty, employee engagement and productivity, recruitment and retention of top talent, brand reputation and financial growth.

What does it take to get it right? There is a lot of research into what it takes to embrace difference in this way. This is generally referred to as ‘Diversity and Inclusion’, “Diversity” meaning having people who are different from each other on board and “Inclusion” meaning having a culture where difference is valued and leveraged. To reap the benefits we are talking about here, you need to have both ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’.

Companies that get this right weave diversity and inclusion into every aspect of their business. They have a clear and compelling vision of what they want to achieve with achievable, but stretching goals and measures. The vision, goals, measures, plans and achievements are communicated regularly openly and honestly to all stakeholders. Leaders are educated on the need for diversity and inclusion and they learn strategies for mitigating their own unconscious biases and for helping their teams value and leverage the diversity of thinking in their teams. Leaders and employees are held accountable for implementing diversity and inclusion practices in every touch point with internal and external stakeholders, be they customers, employees, suppliers, partners, shareholders etc.

How diverse is your team? To what extent do members of your team value and work with the different perspectives difference brings?