“Why fit in when you were born to stand out?”
-Dr. Zeuss aka Theodor Seuss Geisel (1904-1991)
Great question. There was a time when our primitive instinct to react to threats by ‘fight or flight’ was crucial for survival. That was then. Now, the basic design reacts even to non-immediate threats that we merely perceive when pulled out of our comfort zones and faced with differences. This reaction is a glitch that occurs without differentiating between what is a real threat and what is not. This glitch in our brain releases adrenaline that shuts down the more modern thoughtful logical self, the very aspect that consists of ‘who’ we think and feel ourselves to be. So in answer to Dr. Zeuss, that is a reason why we fit in even though we were born with the ability to stand out; in our discomfort of difference, of feeling like the odd one out, the first thing we are primed to do is disengage ourselves from our individuality and unique thoughtfulness – fight rather than flight.
In my experiences as a Chinese immigrant to Australia, I have certainly observed this primal instinct to try and fit in, first hand. While logic would have told me that being Chinese and different to others had no significance, just noticing the small differences of differing accents and colloquial language, and my different oriental appearance put me outside of my comfort zone. I inadvertently felt threatened. Reacting to instinct, I rebelled against my individuality and succumbed to my drive to fit in – to the extent of rejecting my heritage and language.
Elimination of Threat
Reflecting on it all, the threat I saw had nothing to do with me being different, rather I excluded myself as a consequence of how I felt myself to be different. Had I felt more included, perhaps I would have more wholeheartedly opened my arms, as I did eventually, to the benefits my uniqueness brings. I would have accepted and embraced the strict Chinese upbringing that would become part of the self-disciplined ‘me’, the insistent push of Chinese parents to achieve that would become part of my ambitious driven ‘self’, the Chinese language we increasingly recognise as useful. Alas, I perceived threat at that time and reacted, as I was designed to, ignoring the strengths I had.
An inclusive culture. It’s everyone’s responsibility. Productivity drops by 30% when people can’t be themselves at work – when they have to suppress or hide an aspect of their identity, personality or style. An inclusive culture allows people to bring themselves to work”. (Stonewall, Peak Performance, Guasp and Balfour, 2008)
From Threat to Opportunity
In a shrinking world where there is increasing movement of people into different cultures, growing numbers of individuals born of mixed cultures, and more organisations expanding into new international markets, we are open to even more opportunities for greater variations in individualistic thinking and perceptions. This makes it even more important to ensure colleagues feel included to allow their strengths to be brought to the table, to allow them to reach their full potential.
In trying to ‘embrace difference’, organisations use notions of equality and diversity; however, the focus is often on compliance, not outcome. This approach only exists as an artefact to ensure the existence of differences. To turn difference from a threat into an opportunity, it is important to recognise that simply ‘creating’ difference does not address the way people feel and react in a way conducive to this – not for those seeking difference and not for those experiencing difference. If we just create difference in a culture of tolerance, it is in fact likely that difference remains an undesirable – a threat that causes more conflict and frustration than if there were no differences between people.
Just take a second to recall the last time you felt frustrated in conversation with another at work. Was it related to difference, perhaps different opinions, values, or expectations? Likely so. If nothing is done, we continue to do what is natural, which is to fit in. The pure basic human instincts will remain at play and encourage sameness. Indeed, I have worked with leadership who in hopes of creating diverse all-rounded teams have made conscious efforts to recruit those different, only to be influenced by that innate drive towards similarity and step into the pitfall of realising those individuals were not as different as previously believed. Creating difference itself has no benefits. It is only by enabling colleagues to remain within their comfort zones, despite difference, and feel included that they can feel unthreatened enough to begin to recognise the strengths of their individuality. It is by creating that new ‘third’ culture in organisations where differences are recognised as unique strengths, rather than simply (undesirable) differences. Through dialogue and acts that send messages to colleagues of the exciting additions and opportunities of uniqueness, individuals can feel welcomed to share their individual identities. Creating more opportunities for new experiences can aid colleagues in finding more comfort in situations that would have triggered survival instincts previously.
Unleashing Unique Strengths
A quote I once came across is:
A bird does not sing because it has an answer…it sings because it has a song”.
Maya Angelou (b. 1928)
So simply signified is that the individuality that exists within every person is waiting to be sung or unleashed. In this quote, the song is an emanation of the bird’s individuality, an expression of its authentic existence, which it should sing because it is the truth of who and what it is. What I think should be added is that we must create the conditions for the song to be heard, for it to be a song.
As ambitious leaders, it is important to understand that for individuals to express this existing individuality can be a real fight against primitive instincts. To aid them requires providing the conditions to support them in doing so. Perhaps not simply by the creation of difference and a culture of tolerance, but by an inclusive culture and extending comfort zones so colleagues feel comfortable in being different in their perspective and able to recognise their unique strengths.
That is, of course, if new perspectives, innovation and real growth are sought?