Stuck In The Middle With Me

You are only as good as you think you are. This month's theme about opposites was focused on one well-known set of opposing characteristics: Extroverts versus Introverts.

Reading some of the thoughtful observations has made me think a little more generally about how opposites exist and sometimes clash in the workplace and everywhere else, for that matter.

Many of us approach interactions with others with one deeply-held belief: Our own preferred beliefs and behavior are the standards by which all others should be measured.

We base our perceptions of others on how closely they fit us and how we behave and think. In other words, you are more or less task-oriented compared to me or you are more extroverted than I. We do not often go to objective measures to determine where another person is on a continuum of a specific behavior or attitude.

It’s all about how you compare to the “I” I imagine myself to be. Another time I will explore this idea of the “imagined I," but for right now, let’s stick to sizing up others.

Our beliefs about what constitutes normal behavior are formed rather early, during the enculturation period which extends from infancy through early adulthood. Even later in life, we still experience some changes in our perceptions, but the largest share of the work is done by the time we leave home.

Note, I just used a term leave home as though everyone who reads this will have the same general idea of what that phrase means. However, I'll bet we did not all leave home at the same age or in the same way.

I believe that you are more or you are less tolerant compared to me. Here's how all this works: If you are like me in some respect, I tend to view you as normal. If you are farther away on a scale of beliefs or behaviors, you are different.

I might even use labels like liberal or conservative, good or bad, and so on...but always based on the perception that my beliefs and behaviors are smack dab in the middle of the scale, right on top of the marker that says OK or Normal.

Of course, none of us are really normal, at least to the degree we think we are. Sorry about that, but we all deviate from the norm in some respects to some degree. Well, yeah, maybe Tom Hanks is perfectly normal, but the rest of us?

Why Does This Matter?

If we judge another's behavior by what is familiar and comfortable for us, we are missing the opportunity to appreciate that other's behavior for its own value.

  • When we measure another's beliefs by the values we hold dear, we are viewing that person and their world from a very narrow perspective.
  • When our own behaviors and values form the standard, we might actually be way short of where we need to be aiming.
  • When we consider opposites and how being different can be a strength, one of the things we probably need to do is clear our minds of those enculturated ideas about what is normal, right, or preferable.

Be Aware Of Your Prejudices & Preferences

As leaders and those who help leaders grow, we first need to get our minds right so that we are aware of our own prejudices and preferences, and how this comes across to others. Let me suggest three specific strategies to help you do this.

  1. Hang Around With People Who Are Different Than You - When you are exposed to folks whose experiences and background differ from your own, you grow in your ability to appreciate differences. This is because your own perceptions and expectations change. We tend to hang with those with whom we have most in common – break that habit.
  2. Listen To Others To Really Understand Them At A Deep Level - Those of us raised in the United States often struggle with the idea of work as a collaboration between equals, and not a competition with those who are different, which may just reflect a different company culture. Put the gloves down and extend your hand.
  3. Create A Personal Growth Goal To Notice & Change Your Behavior Toward Others - Notice when you are judging another based on your personal preferences. Stop yourself. Confront judging by others. This may be the most challenging aspect of all this.

When you do the above, you model more inclusive behavior, which in turn strengthens the workplace and creates opportunities for growth through deepened appreciation of those who are not just like you.