When my great grandparents immigrated to America from Italy in the late 19th century, they sought to assimilate. Like many newcomers, their goal was to work hard and blend in with their American neighbors.
A lot has changed since then. We’re a far more diverse nation than we were 100 years ago and technology has made the world a much smaller place. Success still requires hard work, but it no longer hinges on blending in. In fact, the opposite is largely true: In order to compete and thrive, individuals increasingly need to identify and magnify what it is that makes them different.
The same holds true for organizations: They must stake a claim to what separates them from the rest and create environments where employees’ diversity is an asset and an advantage.
It’s obvious to me that this is the wave of the future. Yet, I still encounter a surprising amount of resistance to embracing differences on a personal level. Many work environments continue to be characterized by an atmosphere of conformity. I can only assume that this is because people find differences to be threatening and uncomfortable. In this setting, employees are stifled rather than encouraged when they think or behave differently from the norm.
Working exclusively alongside people who share similar skill sets and worldviews is like trying to comprise a winning football team with 11 quarterbacks: You’ll be great at passing, but the rest of your game will be lacking. Or like trying to win a game with only two plays: It doesn’t matter how brilliant those plays are, you need greater versatility.
Today’s pioneering businesses know that thriving in a complex, ever-changing market requires being nimble and well-rounded. They know they must respond quickly and creatively to challenges and barriers. They do that by leveraging their “originality factor” — getting the most from the distinct skills and talents of each member of their workforce.
How do you maximize the benefit of your employees’ different skills, talents and views? By fostering a work environment that supports limitless, non-conformist thinking. The way work is produced dramatically influences what work is produced. You can’t separate process from outcomes. Here are a few proven ideas:
Cross-train. We can deepen our strengths when we actively seek to develop new, boundary-spanning skills and knowledge, like athletes who work their muscles through a variety of exercise routines. In the process we make ourselves more well-rounded and bring greater value to our businesses.
Limitless idea-making. Provide employees with an innovation room — a dedicated physical space where free-thinking is not only encouraged but expected. The space should inspire creativity. Its design is hemmed in only by your imagination. Think large work tables or no tables at all, pedestals, chairs in uncommon configurations, writing tablets, colorful pens or even crayons.
This space shouldn’t be reserved for special-occasions, but accessible at all times with the understanding that it’s for generating innovative and creative ideas.
Boost morale. A strong sense of team membership fosters feelings of inclusion. Once each team member believes that they are a valued member of the team, they’ll feel much more comfortable to offer creative solutions to problems.
Promote teambuilding through an emphasis on open and honest communication; encourage broad input during meetings, making sure that the stage isn’t monopolized by a few; publicly applaud team successes; and create opportunities for team members to develop relationships.
Push your boundaries. Most people have strong notions of what they are and are not good at doing. They tend to play to their strengths and quickly dismiss the time and energy required to learn a new skill, cutting off opportunities for growth. Push yourself and others to go beyond current strengths by experimenting with new and different skills and behaviors.
Businesses and people that embrace differences and actively experiment with them will overcome barriers and gridlock in an accelerated way and reach their targets more rapidly. Those who resist will be left behind.
As a leader, what are you doing to create an environment where differences are encouraged and valued? You can start by modeling what you value and desire: If you’re not afraid to be an individual and go against the grain, it frees others to do the same. Leaders who demonstrate a willingness to be different and set themselves apart will prompt others to follow suit.
But it doesn’t stop there. The work environment has to be one where different skills and strengths are valued equally.
Are you making the most of your originality factor?
Donna Rae Smith is a guest blogger for Smart Business. She is the founder and CEO of Bright Side Inc., a transformational change catalyst company that has partnered with more than 250 of the world’s most influential companies. For more information, visit www.bright-side.com or contact Donna Rae Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org.