When we look out over our world each morning, we start with a very fundamental choice that dictates how we’ll process that day. We choose whether we’ll move forward with a mindset of defence, or whether we’ll stay open to what the world has to offer us. It is this mindset that determines how effective we’ll be and what we’ll receive from our experiences that day.
Part of our survival instinct as human beings is to look for threats and to defend ourselves against them. It’s one of the most critical instincts that’s allowed our survival thus far. 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 that’s responsible for our survival instincts still scans the environment around us – except now it’s evaluating traffic, tone of voice, email content and the actions of the people around us.
Because this instinct is so primal, it’s often left to operate unchecked without us even realising it’s running the show. This can leave us feeling anxious at best, and destroy our ability to find ways forward in all areas of our lives at worst. The good news is that, once it’s pointed out, modern mature awareness allows us to assess and address the world in an entirely new way.
In caveman times, had someone arrived unexpectedly at the door of your cave, which piece of information would you have been most interested in first? Whether they were there to kill you, or what their fire-building capabilities were? It’s this primal instinct that still drives the way we view the world and each other today. We look for threats first, meaning 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 intelligent enough to know that our diversity has also contributed greatly to our ability to survive as a species.
For instance, our genetic diversity has allowed us to overcome diseases, weather and planetary circumstances and a myriad of other threats that have wiped out less diverse species. In today’s world, we also understand that 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.
Whenever we put two or more people together, our greatest challenge is to appreciate and overcome our differences simultaneously, 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, businesses and conglomerates.
It is our uniqueness that sets us apart and allows us to bring something special to the teams and partnerships we join.
If any one of us is the same as any other, then one of us is not necessary. We are designed to be unique.
Because it’s our human nature and survival instinct to evaluate threats and look for differences first, finding strength in unity takes work and intentionality. It’s our human nature to seek relationships, 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 in sharing ourselves with each other, confidently aware of our own strengths, and willing to offer them up as part of the team arsenal.
When we assume that our way of viewing the world is right, or the only way, our unique perspectives, gained from our unique life experiences, can be the cause of our greatest frictions and misunderstandings. When we accept that our perspectives are diverse, then they are also what allow us to offer strengths that 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 strengthen us and what scare us. They divide us, and they bring us together.
Every day, each of us has a choice to defend ourselves from differences, essentially creating our own echo chamber of erroneous rightness; or to 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 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 raise our curiosity when we notice that someone else sees the world differently from us, and we can ask them to unpack that so that we can examine their wisdom and adjust ours if necessary.
It is 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.
Each of us is not only necessary but we’re gifted with a uniqueness that adds flavour and insight to others as much as they add flavour and insight to our world. Each of us sees the world in different ways which, when shared, allows us to challenge and expand our own perspective.
We say the same things in different ways, expressing nuances and beauty that add dimension – – especially when someone’s first language is different to ours.
We are all passionate about what we do in different ways. When we pay attention to where people’s passion lies, it allows us to understand that their arena is covered, freeing us to be passionate about what we do without limitation.
When we investigate, understand and make use of the differing priorities each person in a team has, we create a powerful collective where each priority is covered. This is no more significant than it is within a family where the sometimes-limited time and resources of a few must facilitate the burgeoning lives of the whole. If everyone wanted to stay home and raise children, 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 and to share in achieving the whole, that is key.
Whenever we mesh different generations together within a family, team or workforce, we also mesh their vastly different experiences of the world and their resulting value structures. The varied pieces of the puzzle they bring allow us to embrace both where we’ve come from and where we’re going. When we not only allow but indulge in questioning, both of ourselves and others, we allow ourselves to examine the 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 differ from yours so that you can see how their strengths may cover your weaknesses? When was the last time you volunteered your weaknesses and asked which team member could help you mitigate them?
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
July 3rd, 2023