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How to really understand diversity

During my recent interview with Scott McArthur his parting shot was a typically show-stopping moment of utter brilliance and the glaringly obvious. On the subject of ‘What is the one thing we should be doing right now?’ Scott answered: “Spend time with people who are not like you”.

This advice seems so obvious and it carries through into everything we do as HR professionals and humans. Spending time with people who approach life differently gives us brand new, invaluable perspectives on what it is to be human – not just our kind of human.

Choosing to step outside of the life we live, the one we know so well, into other lives that are different, shows we are open to understanding. To have even a little appreciation of challenges faced by other people gives us empathy. And in our roles as HR professionals, surely empathy is one of the most powerful tools we can wield? If we understand then maybe we can manage better?

And it doesn’t even need to be about stepping out of our lives really does it? It could be about genuinely listening to someone who has a different view to you as hard as that may be. I mean to really listen, to sit with the discomfort of what they are saying because it is not what you think or understand. To not challenge their perspective or to seek to change their view to be similar to yours.

Whether we consider this through the eyes of the recent US election results, by looking at Brexit or in the way that people are handling Covid-19, what has struck me is a complete inability for people to consider the perspective of the ‘other side’ as valid. This is made worse by social media where often we create an echo chamber of people who are like us. I have, myself, sometimes stopped following people due to their views being so contrary to my own on a multitude of topics. Even in my work life, I had to stop myself from shutting up the voice that was questioning something I had created, agreed or been party to. I have now come to recognise that, often, that is the most important voice to listen to.

I am working with a client at the moment to help undertake some training for their Employee Works Council and what has been most enlightening is that all the stakeholders have a view of what the outcomes should be - what needs to be covered due to the ineffectiveness of the other parties. And yet it would seem that none of them have asked or heard what the other parties want or need. I am not judging them for this. They are working in a system which could mean that they may not feel safe to ask, or challenge, or be honest. That’s what I am going to help them with.

Everyone has their own perspective built upon their lived experience. It’s up to us to try and see just a little of what other people live, preferably (and this is the hard part) without judgment.

Prejudice occurs to us all on some level. Disabilities, single parents, skin colour, wealthy landowners, Waitrose v Aldi, political affiliation, did you vote in or out? There are also many issues and challenges that aren’t so obvious and need careful understanding. Specific health issues, mental illness, PTSD and other invisible divides exist to differentiate us further. You name it, there are things that group us in society but these are also the things that alienate us. We seek the comfort of fitting in. This sometimes mean that we conform to something that may feel wrong or uncomfortable. And that means that, sometimes, we stop seeking to understand.

It could be that we are just not comfortable with conflict and we assume that if we don’t agree with everyone, it will lead to conflict. However, I would say that we need to work out how to manage conflict effectively and use it for good. We need to be able to challenge each other to make better decisions, get better outcomes. And that means that we need conflict from people who are different to us, who think differently to us, so that we consider all perspectives.

What I am saying is that we exist as individuals but can be grouped together using certain sets of our characteristics that define us in some way. This makes life a little neater and helps us try to herd the 70 million individuals. But it doesn’t mean that it’s right and we should challenge ourselves on it.

What can we learn from the elderly, children, people living in poverty, people who live in a city or a rural village, people who work nights, students… the list is so open ended and provides us with a lot of material. Who isn’t like me? It’s a question that I can’t stop thinking about. How do I spend time with people who aren’t like me? It might be uncomfortable, it might be awkward, but it’s a varied world and taking the time to spend with people who are not like me is vital if I am to be an effective HR leader let alone a better human.

This idea leads us very nicely to next week’s article which is about personalisation. Embracing difference in the workplace (or anywhere for that matter) and treating people like individuals comes from personalising our approach to each and every person on our radar. What a thought.

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