The Strength In Our Differences

It’s part of our survival instinct as human beings to look for threats and defend ourselves against them.  Once upon a time, the part of our brain responsible for reacting to threats would have been on the alert for a sabre-toothed tiger.  Today, the same part of our brain responsible for our survival instincts still scans the environment around us – except now it’s evaluating traffic, tone of voice and the actions of the people around us.
Because it’s part of our survival instinct to look for threats, we tend to recognise differences before we see similarities and common ground.  Our primal instinct asks “How are you different to me?” and consequently “How are you a threat?”.  Thankfully, in this day and age, we’re also intelligent enough to examine our viewpoints and to sift through the history of what our diversity means.
It is our genetic diversity that has allowed us to survive as a species, overcoming diseases, circumstances and other threats that have wiped out less diverse species; genetic diversity that has developed over millennia to cope with threats like weather, nature, and our specific environments.  Our unique life experiences further differentiate us, ensuring we grow diverse perspectives of the world around us, how it operates, and how we perceive each other.
When we put two or more people together, our greatest challenge is both to appreciate and overcome these differences; allowing us to find and take advantage of our common ground without losing the strengths that our differences bring.  This is true of friendships and lovers, partnerships and families, personal and professional relations. 
It is our uniqueness that sets us apart and allows us to bring something special to the teams and partnerships we join.  If one of us is the same as any other on that team, then one of us is not necessary.  It is also our ability to find common ground, shared value systems and agreed upon direction that activates the power of being a team – turning a group of individuals into a unified force.
Because it is our human nature and survival instinct to evaluate threats and look for differences first, finding strength in unity takes work.  It is our human nature to seek relationship, but that need is secondary to survival.  Relationship requires us to hang around long enough to hear and understand each other.  It requires us to be both voluntarily vulnerable enough to share ourselves with each other, and confidently aware enough of our own strengths to offer them up as part of the team arsenal.
Our unique perspectives gained from our unique life experiences are what cause our greatest frictions and misunderstandings when we assume that our way of viewing the world is right, or the only way.  When we accept that our perspectives are diverse, they are also what allow us to cover each other’s weaknesses and blind spots, broadening our thinking as a team so that we see and address more sides of the same environment.
Diversity is the source of some of humanity’s greatest joy and strength, as well as our greatest frustration and division.  Our differences are both what strengthens us and what scares us.  They divide, and they bring us together.  Each of us has a choice as to whether we defend ourselves from differences, essentially creating our own echo-chamber of erroneous rightness; or whether we embrace the perspective and strength that each individual brings to our lives and use it to broaden and unpack our own viewpoints, adding to our combined ability to address what lies ahead and around us.
The whole premise of having a team – be it at home, at work, or in the greater world at large – is that our different ways of approaching things give us a competitive edge.  Our greatest strength as a team is our diversity, and yet it is also the source of our greatest disassociation.
In any team, there will be differences in perspective and experience, and therefore in the way people go about things.  There will also be pre-set judgements drawn from previous experiences about how people are and what is threatening to us.  We can either eye each other with suspicion and disdain (How often are these the underlying factors when we talk to a team member or even a spouse and discover a difference in viewpoint?), or we can get excited about the fact that our differences mean each one of us is necessary!  We can prick up our curiosity when we notice that someone else sees the world differently from us, and we can ask them to unpack that for us so that we can examine their wisdom and adjust ours if necessary.
I’m grateful every day for the fact that I am not only necessary, but gifted with a uniqueness that adds flavour and insight to others as much as they add flavour and insight to my world.  I’m grateful for the different ways that others see things as it helps me to challenge and expand my own perspective.
I’m grateful for the different ways other people say things, as they express things anew or with beauty I hadn’t considered – especially people whose first language is different to mine.
I’m grateful for the different ways that other people are passionate about what they do.  That they are passionate about what they do means that their arena is covered and I can be passionate about what I do without limitation.
I’m grateful for the different priorities that people have which mean we create a powerful collective.  This is no more significant than it is within a family.  If everyone wanted to stay home with the kids, who would provide and create futures?  If everyone wanted a career, who would stabilize the home base that nurtures and refuels?  It is our ability to appreciate each other’s part that is key.
I am grateful for the different generations that mesh together with their vastly different experiences of the world and their resulting value structures.  I’m grateful for all the pieces of the puzzle that they bring that allow us to embrace both where we’ve come from and where we’re going.  I’m grateful for those around me who will allow and indulge my questioning as well as question me so that I can examine a bigger picture.

“I know there is strength in the differences between us.  I know there is comfort, where we overlap.”

– Ani DiFranco

This is the core premise that teams are built on.  Any team – our home team, our work team, our human team.  Our differences are what give us strength – the key is to appreciate them rather than fear them.  Our comfort comes from finding where we overlap in our common practices and beliefs and, more than anything else, our common values and goals.
Our ability to pull together as a team comes from our agreement on these two aspects of that togetherness – the common values and beliefs that govern who we will be to each other as we journey together, and what our common goal is – the destination we’d like to arrive at together.  Once these common denominators are decided on, we may go back to taking full advantage of our diversity and the different ways of thinking that make us powerful team members; regularly circling back over what connects us.

“Diversity: the art of thinking independently together.”

– Malcolm Forbes

When was the last time you unpacked the diversity of your team – at home, at work?  When was the last time you asked others how their outlook and opinion differs from yours so that you can see how their strengths may cover your weaknesses?
How can you allow the diversity within your team to feed your strategy and enlighten your way forward?  How can you celebrate the various generational viewpoints, discuss their offerings and honour each one – encouraging appreciation and understanding of each?  How can you invite the perspective of each person to light the ways you are not able to see as clearly alone?  How can you protect each individual’s right to be everything they are made to be, safely and without prejudice?  How can you cement and celebrate your team’s common beliefs and goals, at the same time as encouraging their unique contribution towards them?

by Christen Killick

January 31st, 2022

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