I've had two profound conversations this week, within hours of each other, that've got my wheels turning at high speeds ever since. It’s the idea of homogenized people -- particularly in the workplace.
I’m concerned my organization is becoming homogenized. I’m afraid we want to work with people that look like us. People who talk and act like us. People who have similar interests as us. People we know we’d enjoy spending time with, working alongside, and hanging out with. People who line up with similar values, similar beliefs and who naturally have similar ways of approaching things and doing things. People who enjoy similar music and similar food. People who’d be “a good hang.”
In summary, it’s an undeniable fact that people naturally tend to prefer spending time with people who think like them and agree with them, rather than spend time with people who think differently and disagree with them.
But before I delve too far into this idea, let’s first ask why.
I have a growing belief that people want to live, work and spend time with people who look and act like them because it’s easy. It’s much easier to spend time with people who approach life similarly to the way we do and enjoy similar interests as we do. It’s easy to hang out with people with similar temperaments, people with similar communication styles, and those who exhibit similar behaviors.
On the contrary, it can be very challenging to spend time with someone who’s different. Someone who comes from a different place and background. Someone who speaks a different language. Someone who talks louder than we do... or maybe they just talk a lot. Someone who has different values and beliefs. Someone who approaches life (and work) from a different perspective or with a different style. It's often the difference between a good roommate and a bad one. Right?
And in the workplace, there’s no denying that on-boarding, training and ultimately collaborating with and working with someone who’s inherently different from us can be very challenging — even exhausting. It requires more time, attention, patience and ultimately it requires more work to achieve success.
As such, it’s no surprise that people naturally want to work with people who are more like them. It’s easier. Right? Ok, but what else?
I’m still working on this topic, but I’m honing in on a few over-arching, slightly disjointed beliefs on this topic:
- Regular agreement and consensus among creative people and creative teams is poison. It's a canary in the coal mine. Disagreement, differences, dissent and healthy conflict are critical to achieving understanding, innovation, creativity, empathy, learning and growth.
- Collaboration, collective intelligence and the magic that comes from these ceases to occur and no longer matters if everyone is the same, thinking the same, sharing similar beliefs, similar interests, similar thinking, working with a similar approach and doing things the same way. Instead we become sterile, stale, and more closely embody the creativity of a drone or maybe a sugar ant.
- Creative people tend to be emotional people. Emotions can sometimes cloud or interfere with logic and decision making. Difficulty in relating to and working alongside people who are different from us can breed stress, anxiety and negative emotions. It can be hard. These emotions have a tendency to blind people to diversity’s upsides. Upsides include new ideas, better understanding, increased creativity, innovation, empathy, and new, wonderful solutions.
- Homogeneity provides harmony and agreement. And while this offers a high degree of comfort and ease, which are generally good things, homogeneity feeds a dangerous level of affirmation, self-indulgence, over-confidence and consensus. And at its worst, it provides the perfect conditions for a fantastically terrifying echo chamber. For a macro example of this, consider the current state of American politics.
- In spite of efforts toward globalization, the world isn’t homogenous. An organization or a group of people who lack diversity will no doubt be incapable of knowing, understanding, and successfully navigating a diverse world. This is especially true in business. A homogenous group of people is really only capable of serving themselves well. And THAT can be a very deceptive, hypnotizing cup of self seduction — one that tastes so good, yet is nothing short of a toxic venom.
- People who are clearly and distinctly different from one another CAN totally align around a core purpose, core values, strong structure and systems, and ultimately thrive together to achieve great success. In fact, research points to much greater success than that of homogenous teams of people. While it may be a slightly more challenging path, strong leaders are the catalysts to model and cultivate this among their people and teams.
What to do:
As I continue to work on this topic, I’ve distilled two critical, overarching objectives I plan to spend some time on. I have a hunch these may be the key to unlocking a game-changing transformation around Homogeneity vs. Heterogeneity in the workplace:
- Awareness. I believe most of us have spent little to no time with these ideas and therefore lack awareness of these dynamics that are taking place in us and around us. If we can be more aware of what’s happening and of our actual behaviors, whether we’re doing it consciously or unconsciously — we can start paying attention and start to learn more about ourselves and about others around us. It seems to me that awareness alone may be half of the solution.
- Understanding and promoting the value of diversity (and the danger of homogeneity). It’s easy to say “diversity is good and homogeneity is bad” — but being able to really identify, understand the value, and sincerely desire diversity is what’s critical. Without sounding too business-nerdy, the best way to get people to truly want diversity is to present a value proposition that’s too good to turn down or avoid.
Okay, that's where I'm at. And while I'm not well read on this topic, here's a couple of interesting articles about the value of diversity over homogeneity in the workplace, written by experts who are much smarter than me:
Now comes the hard part -- it’s time for me to get to work on this. Stay tuned.
PS: in all of this, I should note I'm growing keenly aware that I sit here, writing and sharing my thoughts as a straight, white, male, living a privileged life. This is an iceberg topic. Or rather, an ocean of icebergs. While I have some experience and expertise in leading creative people, I am nothing more than a curious explorer on the bigger, broader topics contained here.