It Takes All Kinds

Maybe it’s because we have eyes to see and because most of us view the world in color that we so readily envision “diversity in the workplace” as a palette. Just say the words to yourself, and I’ll bet you picture people with differences in skin color, age, physical capacity, body shape and gender. This is variety made visible, and unless you employ a lot of negative effort (prejudice and discrimination, for example), you can’t overlook it.

A less obvious sort of diversity is even harder to ignore. (But we often do!) I mean the uniquely personal way in how each of us feels, thinks and reacts in the face of life. No two of us approach the world in identical fashion; we don’t view the same circumstances the same way; and we don’t experience our needs, desires and drives in exactly the same manner.

This interior diversity implies that everyone behaves differently. At work especially, recognizing this fact is the professional thing to do. It goes along with accepting that your boss is younger than you, that you’re more experienced than the fellow in the next cubicle and that you need to meet certain performance standards, just like everyone else around the water cooler.

As clear as this may seem, many people pat themselves on the back because they acknowledge physical diversity, yet snipe at, gossip about, or even shun a co-worker because that person doesn’t “blend in” by acting as the rest of the staff expects.

Most organizations these days respect a person’s right to individuality even when imposing a dress code, a no-smoking policy or some other set of guidelines. They know that no one can be faulted just for being different, unless of course it leads to behavior that harms others. This principle is so simple that we teach it to our children, yet we often violate it when we’re on our own “playground,” that is, at work.

I recently received a call from Maria, a mid-level manager in a city agency in Illinois and one of my coaching clients. Maria wanted advice about “Larry,” a man she supervised who was so out of step with his mission-minded co-workers that they accused him of failing to be a team player and labeled him “disruptive.” How to halt this grumbling while honoring Larry’s right to be an individual? Maria wondered.

Once past people’s judgments about Larry and looking at the facts, it turned out that he had recently (and not for the first time) refused to work overtime. He skipped social functions, such as staff picnics. And instead of accepting every new assignment without a murmur, he asked seemingly endless questions to clarify the nature of the job and how he should do it.

In short, Larry acts differently than his co-workers. He says “No.” He’s not outgoing. He’s analytical and needs a thorough explanation of his assignments before he can do them well, or at all.

Simply because Larry sees things in a different light hardly makes him an uncooperative loner. True, he needs to know exactly what’s required of him before he has the confidence to undertake a project, and this slows things down at the front end and frustrates his co-workers when they’re on a deadline. What they don’t concede is that Larry not only meets due dates, he gets his work done right the first time. Complaints about other aspects of his behavior amount to gossip, and gossip is unprofessional.

That may be a bitter pill to swallow. If you worked with Larry you might think that his behavior is something he could and should want to change to make things easier on everyone else.

Truly embracing diversity at work requires accepting the gamut of differences—external and internal—that distinguish us one from another. The most professional way to consider others is through the fruits of their labor, not how you feel about their style

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