By Cheryl Stein
Monster Business Coach
Did you ever notice that everyone outside your own head thinks really strangely?
I sometimes catch myself thinking that I am the only sane person on the entire planet. I pass people on the street and I am baffled. My kids, who share half my genes, say things and do things that are often inexplicable. My sister and I could not be more different. My mother drives me crazy. We are faced with how diverse the human race is every single time we have any interaction with any other person, regardless of where they come from.
Each and every one of us is a unique individual with our own particular view of the world and our own particular way of doing things. We have this misguided expectation that diversity is something that we can overcome, yet we still can’t manage to overcome the issue in our own families and our own neighborhoods. Could we be barking up the wrong tree?
Diversity has become a really big issue in the workplace.
A few hundred years ago, you lived your life in a community, didn’t travel very far, and most likely did not have a chance to see the way the rest of the world lives. You spent your life with people who pretty much looked like you and very often shared the same experiences. Now, we can work with people from countless different countries connecting in person and virtually.
Somehow, we are supposed to figure out a way to get along, figure out a way to be productive, and navigate the challenges that the modern day workplace throws at us despite the fact that our brains are wired to lump people into classifications based on very quick first impressions. We are wired to do this because our brains need help to process all the information that we are constantly taking in through our senses. We are programmed to size people up by what they look like or how they are behaving and to categorize them in a way that is easy to file away in our minds. That kind of processing makes us extremely efficient thinkers but hinders us when we are working with someone who seems different from us.
We are often challenged to find common ground and to learn to get along despite the fact that people from other countries or other cultures can seem, on the surface, so foreign.
Breaking Down Us and Them
Although it probably seems a little counterintuitive to begin dealing with diversity by focusing on commonality, that is exactly where real understanding needs to start. To help people learn to accept what is different, you must first focus on what is the same. If you need to work with someone from a different cultural background, find out what it is about you that is the same. Chances are you have a lot in common with people who seem really diverse to you. I bet you both have parents, both had a childhood, both live in a neighborhood, both have friends, bills, and struggles. I bet you all wake up every day and get ready for work. I am quite sure you both have a birthday. Any one of these similarities or others that you can think of is a starting point for a conversation. Invest in the time to have that conversation because it will change your mind if you think that your lives are not the same. It will also help you get to know the person as an individual.
We often think that it isn’t appropriate to ask people personal questions but getting personal is essential to getting to understand people from other cultures. The key to approaching someone is to have an authentic desire to understand them. If you are asking someone about their traditions, customs or experiences in a non-judgmental inquisitive way, then that person will be happy to share information with you.
If they think that they are being looked at negatively, they will never be comfortable sharing their experiences with you. It is this positive desire to get to know someone that is at the heart of understanding different cultures.
Take a Virtual Trip
Make your best effort to learn about where this person comes from. Take the time to read up on their customs. You have no excuse. A quick online search will get you pages and pages of information.
One of the things that people gloss over in the diversity issue is their own cultural idiosyncrasies. Think about it, if someone you work with is diverse to you, chances are you are diverse to them too. Here is a neat exercise to do when you are trying to break down barriers:
Walk in Their Shoes
- Figure out what is strange or interesting about the culture that you come from. Be objective and look at yourself through the eyes of someone who did not grow up like you. Make a list of all the things that would seem strange and think about how these things would be explained to someone who does not understand them. Looking at ourselves through this lens helps us to have an open mind when it comes to others.
If your cultural background is the dominant one in your workplace, take five minutes to imagine what it would be like for you to work in a place where you were foreign or in the minority. What would it feel like to have people look at you as the different one? Ask yourself how you would want to be treated and how you would want to be integrated into the organizational culture.
There is no way to disguise the fact that there are cultural differences in this world and cultural differences in the workplace. Different places have different ways of doing things and this adds to the richness of our planet. When you accept this as fact and are aware that differences are what make groups and ideas strong then you can carry this positive attitude toward work contribution and to the management of diversity in your organization.
Cheryl Stein is an Associate Certified Coach, a credential that is designated by the International Coach Federation. For more information, visit Stein Consulting and Coaching.