Diversity or the ‘problematic’ other.

By October 23, 2012General

Today’s challenges in society bring about new thinking and ways of working: e.g. ‘Shared Value‘ (Porter and Kramer; 2011) or CSR 2.0 (Visser, 2010).

In these innovative approaches, we are faced with at least two big challenges: First, how to cope with uncertainty and novelty, as discussed in our last blog (Oct 2,’12). Second, we must learn to truly see and accept the other as yet diverse partners, thus overcoming a deep and commonly held perspective of the ‘problematic’ other. 

Don’t we sometimes experience some negative emotions when others resist our new ideas? Don’t we all at times believe our plans or views are great, if only other people could just recognise this? Wouldn’t life be less stressful if we were all the same?  

In our version of events, the ‘resistant‘ other person becomes the problem, because they just don’t ‘get’ our brilliant perception or idea. Why is this? Here are some views from diverse fields.  

Innovation science teaches about the ‘Innovation Sweet Spot’ (Goldenberg): Being different is OK, since it raises our interest but the ‘other’ (the alternative view of another person) must not be too diverse or deviant from what we already know or have experienced, otherwise we fail to understand or relate to the ‘otherness’ of it. 

Psychology shows that being present with the other may cause deep feelings of anxiety as we come to believe that our ideas  – even ourselves – will be left without support. In order to avoid these feelings, that make us feel quite unsafe in the presence of the resistant ‘other’, we either fight or flee. 

The result? We may decide to force our ideas through, whether or not we have agreement and acceptance from the ‘other’. Or we withdraw our new ideas from the world, and sometimes our whole selves from the relationship where we experience resistance.  

A cultural economic perspective is provided by L Bruni on how we have come to adopt a fairly grim image of the ‘other’. In this way, markets and economical transactions, – being relatively safe or neutral ‘places’ to get something done by, or be with, other people, guided by some form of contractual agreement, – have developed nowadays into substitutes for truly embracing and accepting ‘the other’ and his or her ‘otherness’. Alternatively, the ‘Economy of Communion’, aims to restore relationships, inclusiveness, and diversity at the heart of the economy.

Finally, Organisational Learning and Change Theories (Scharmer, Senge) propose the need for openness to the other as an essential attitude or behaviour in order to learn to see the whole, since the whole by definition is diverse. There are more angles to a (complex) situation than just one perspective. Breakthrough only happens when we are open to see alternative perspectives by temporarily suspending our own voices of judgement or ideas.

So, what can we do to make ourselves more available, to become more inclusive and to embrace diversity?

  • Learn to see and accept our self-absorbed preoccupations: e.g. worries about keeping our identity in the presence of others, concerns about our personal needs being fulfilled and being in control (Schein). Realise we naturally have those but we  are not the same as our worries. Just park them for the moment and try to be open to interaction with the ‘other’.
  • Connect with our deeper sources of inspiration (e.g. through observing a moment of silence prior to meeting others): that may induce an experience of connectedness to others, to feeling part of the bigger system. It is about overcoming a sense of difference and division that we often internalise, and which tends to generate an image of the ‘problematic other’. See another human being rather than ‘another’.
  • Learn from diversity initiatives and practice them (L Ryan, HBR Blog network; Oct 16/ ‘12). For example actively and collectively share the difference of our many, varying backgrounds and underlying (cultural) assumptions and get exposed to these through conversations and working together. In other words, integrate diversity into our normal ways of working rather than separating it out as ‘something for the HR department to focus on’ rather than ordinary people at work sharing their beautifully broad, infinitely intriguing variety of human experience.