From the May/June 2004 issue of Diversity & the Bar
This Land Was Made for You and Me
In our recent article, “The Ins and Outs of Managing,”1 we discussed the phenomenon of ingroup-outgroup dynamics and challenged you to decide what you want to change in your organization. Specifically, we invited you to examine your role in perpetuating ingroups and outgroups, to make decisions based on objective data, and to employ diverse groups to get a broad range of opinions for better decision-making.
Now, nearly six months later, we are curious. How is it going?
For most people, no matter how expected or how noble the cause, change brings discomfort. Yet, as odd as it may sound, there can be great comfort in this discomfort. It can be a useful signal indicating growth and opportunity.
When we go to another country, we expect things to be different even when they cause us discomfort. When in Russia, we do not expect to see road signs in English. When in France, we are not surprised when we do not find decaffeinated coffee (newly opened Starbucks, notwithstanding). When in Spain, a late dinner is part of the experience. Wherever we go, we expect to sample new and unusual foods, hear different dialects, and enjoy the newness of a different place.
Working with others, with their varied backgrounds and experiences, requires a similar “traveler” perspective.
Each of us knows what “my country” is like, but we know little about the land beyond, the “countries” of the people we work with.
In today’s team-oriented environment, a policy of isolationism will not work. “My land” is not better or worse than someone else’s. Each land has wonderful traditions and indigenous treasures. Indeed, this diversity of thought and experiences can be a significant strength and advantage. The challenge is to recognize the value of the differences, and harness their power.
The Flourishing Process can help you recognize when discomfort is a symptom of growth, and how to find comfort in your discomfort.
Start with a tour of your own land. When someone is working with you, what kind of place are they entering? If you were the tour guide, what would you highlight?
After you have surveyed your land, what do you choose to do with the information? What will you share with your colleagues? What will you hold back? What would you like to learn about their lands? The more you and your colleagues know about how to work with each other, the better work experience you are all likely to have.
Let us be clear that when we suggest sharing information about your land, that we are not saying you need to share private or deeply personal information. In fact, we are not saying you need to share anything.
Just be aware that if you do not share information about your land, others will be unprepared to travel there. For example, you may choose not to speak at all about your religious observances. However, if your organization does not close for a holiday you celebrate, and you do not make it known that you will be out that day, do not be surprised if meetings are scheduled at that time.
Step 1: Pack Your Bags
Travel to someone else’s land and ask for a tour.
Taking a tour is essential; sightseeing on your own will only lead you to assumptions about the natives! If you are not comfortable using the land metaphor with colleagues or staff, rephrase the discussion to suit your style. Offer your colleagues information you uncovered about your land, so they have an idea of what you are seeking.
Sensitivity to the customs of different lands becomes more significant when we move from work styles to more personal aspects, such as race, gender, and religion. One minority attorney recounted a painful experience when his mentor tried to visit his land without checking the guidebook. He was from a modest background, and was proud to be the first member of his family to attend college, much less graduate from law school. During lunch with a non-minority partner in his firm, the partner tried to do the right thing, looking for common ground to establish a personal connection. Thinking of the customs in his own land, the partner asked, “Where did your family summer?” The partner’s attempt, though well intended, backfired. He never guessed that the customs of the minority attorney’s land might be different from his own.
What else might the partner have said? He might have asked the young associate, “How did you and your family spend your summers?” Or, “What were summer breaks like in your hometown?” The specific question is not so important. What is critical is to come from a place of respectful curiosity about the other person’s experiences without assumptions or judgments.
Step 2: A New Frontier
Begin to explore how you can work together, discovering “our land” — a place where you and your co-workers mutually understand the culture and can live comfortably. It is only when all voices are heard and different perspectives are valued that the level of commitment to the success of this new land will increase.
We gratefully acknowledge the work of The Center for Right Relationship, Vallejo, Calif., for the travel and land images.