Five Ways to Say You are Open Minded, Value Differences, and Actually Mean It

By Ron Carucci

Tuesday, March 28th 2017

Who among us would ever say, “Sure, I say I’m open minded, but I don’t really mean it. I do everything I can to look like I am open to ideas and viewpoints that are different than mine, but deep down I really believe I am right and those that think differently are just wrong.”

Leaders fail to realize they actually do say this regularly….with their behavior.  In fact, we all do. The recent transition to a new presidency has revealed how painfully divided we are as a nation, and it has revealed how horrifically intolerant we are towards those who differ. If we want a truly united country, and if we want truly united organizations, then we’re going to have to get much better at genuinely embracing difference.

We often confuse unity for uniformity. The Latin origin of the word unite is unus, meaning one. It means to join together, to fuse, and to connect. By contrast, the word uniform has its Latin derivative uniformis, meaning constant, unvarying, stable, and unchanging. By its definition, uniformity is divisive – sameness excludes. But uniformity is seductively comforting. We like to be around people who see the world as we do. We naively think that uniformity, the absence of dissonance means, unity. But that’s actually the definition of a cult. The inability of an organization, or a nation, to unite around its differences is a severe liability. Because when the strength of that organization, or nation, is tested by external forces, internal warfare begins and everyone involved is unlikely to fare well.

Whether you lead a team or are a member of one, run an entire organization, or are a neighbor in a community, here are five ways to honestly assess whether your actions and words match your self proclaimed open mindedness.

  1. Inventory who’s in your echo chamber. Echo chambers are alluring things. They can feign “diversity” in masterful ways. I recently sat around the table with a “diverse” leadership team. The leader was an African American man. The team had three woman, two of whom were Caucasian, and one who was Asian American. One of the women was openly gay. There were three men, two were Hispanic and one was Caucasian. People politely joked about the latter being the “token white guy.” And after watching them for a couple of days, I confronted the elephant in the room: “There isn’t an ounce of true diversity at this table.”  And they all knew it. It wasn’t that there weren’t fundamental differences among the team – there were. It was the degree to which they worked so hard to hide them that gave it away. At the first sign of even mild dissent, their catch phrase was, “Well, I guess we agree to disagree.” The organization they led had major problems and I expected heated exchanges over how to address them. To the contrary, it was a very pleasant day and a half of “taking issues offline”, waiting for more data, and agreeing to disagree….without making any decisions. Who do you spend regular time with at work or outside work, with whom you have heated disagreements and then have coffee or a beer? If you don’t have people around you who comfortably and routinely exchange differing views without fear of retribution or estrangement, you’re in trouble. It means there is critical information you aren’t getting about decisions you are making, relationships you are participating in, and priorities you are pursuing.

  2. Own your hypocrisy. Holding steadfast to convictions is a beautiful and upstanding thing to do. But doing so at the expense of other principles isn’t. You can’t staunchly advocate for more investments in employee development but then never spend any time coaching your own direct reports. You can’t march up and down public streets advocating for those you believe to be marginalized in some way, but then marginalize anyone who disagrees with you. You can’t announce that you are passionate about empowering those you lead, but then only delegate the decisions and work you find the most distasteful. And you can’t invite others’ feedback on your leadership then do nothing with it when you get it. The moment you declare something you believe, like being open minded to differing views, you will get scrutinized for how well you live up to your own standards. You need to view your actions through the eyes of those who might not see things as you do to be sure your actions and words match.

  3. Spend real time with your “they”. When we disagree with people, we objectify them. We concoct “versions” of them that conform with, and justify, our disdain for them. We “other” them. In one client organization, the heads of Supply Chain and Sales were known enemies. When you asked them about each other, they would talk of respecting the other, having a good “working professional relationship".  A look deeper revealed that the Supply Chain head believed that the Sales head was driven by greed, driving “bad” sales that made forecasting nearly impossible. The Sales head believed the Supply Chain head to be lazy and risk-averse, working hard to avoid progressive change. As they discovered how wrong their mutual assumptions were, they were able to work more collaboratively and productively. But it took a lot of work to get them there. On a piece of paper, jot down the names of those in your organization with whom you regularly work and with whom you have fundamental disagreements. How have those disagreements impaired trust? Or your ability to collaborate or lead? These are the people (and we all have them) to whom you nod politely in meetings, but deep inside you’re convinced are wrong and you’re right. What if you actually spent time vetting your assumptions and engaging the ways in which you are different? Might you share more common ground than you imagine? I dare you to pick one person from your list and invite them to lunch, and find out which assumptions you hold about them to be profoundly inaccurate. 

  4. Confront your deepest fears. Research shows our aversion to others who are different stems from deep seated fears. It also shows that the more exposure we have to those with differences, the more that fear diminishes. We associate difference with conflict, disagreement, winning-losing, and the risk of social status or reputation. Though often irrational, our fears lead to self-protection and resistance to expand how we think.  We fear that accepting (different than agreeing with) the views or ideas of those we disagree with means compromising our own ideas, or condoning beliefs and choices that contradict our moral or ethical principles. Dig deep to understand what you most fear when considering the acceptance of views that differ from yours. Does your resistance lie with the idea itself?  The person with the idea or their motives? The intensity with which they are trying to persuade you? If you can isolate what you fear, you can test the rationality of that fear against the value to be gained by building common ground with a colleague.

  5. Get the respect thing right. Superficial politeness and cowardly avoidance isn’t genuine respect. The real test of respecting people who differ from you in some way is how you act when they aren’t present. Our political landscape has mastered mockery, sarcasm, extreme hyperbole, sharp insults, condescending dismissal, and mass ridicule as the norm for coping with differences. I encountered one leader, whose sophomoric insults about a women on his team shared with a few close colleagues backfired when she walked into his office in the middle of one of his mocking stories about her. He was mortified because he got caught.  Despite the many times he’d told her what a valuable member of his team she was, he struggled to see the disrespect in telling a “harmless story about an embarrassing moment”. And he was actually an intelligent, socially skilled manager. The humiliated look on her face as she slowly realized the story was about her jolted him into a new understanding of true respect. But that lesson came at painful cost. 

To be sure, embracing differences at a genuinely open level is very hard. Our fundamental identities come to light when they reflect off those who don’t see the world as we do. To look honestly at what reflects back can be unnerving when it doesn’t match who we’ve thought ourselves to be. People who differ from us reveal who we are. When we avoid them, we stop discovering who we are. If you want to become the best version of yourself, you need to be in relationships with those who aren’t like you. Not just polite exchanges of pleasantries. Commit to perusing refining experiences of relationships with those who are different from you, where you help each other become more of who you can be individually, and together, differences and all. 


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