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Sep 13

The power of not knowing

When I was about 8 and on the beach while holidaying in Wales, my father took me to one side for A Talk. I was immediately on the defensive, sure that I was being misunderstood. Again. I dug my flip flop into the sand, feeling the dune grass scratching my toes. He tried to explain to me that saying ‘I know’ (my favourite phrase at the time) could be alienating for other people. It might make them feel embarrassed or insulted. ‘But I do know!’ was my robust retort. ‘I can’t help it if I know things already.’

It seemed perfectly logical to me at the time, and as I progressed through the education system, and especially at work in a large corporation, I was repeatedly rewarded for ‘knowing’. In fact knowing, or at least believing you know, has always been an important currency for getting ideas agreed and making career progress. You need to know. Or at least sound as though you do.

I have done a lot of work recently on Inclusion and Diversity. And it strikes me that this need to always know the answer runs counter to organisation’s well intentioned plans to improve inclusion. If I am supposed to already know everything, then I also ‘know’ what it feels like to be from another culture, or gender, or religion, or sexuality. Right? I mean if I’m smart I must already know.

Let’s call this Stage 1: Knowing all the answers. At this stage there may be very little diversity in the organisation because if you already know the answers, you don’t need a different kind of person to tell you. There’s no value to diversity.

Let’s say I get over this block and realise I don’t know. Now I might feel that it wouldn’t be polite to ask. Is it racist to ask a black person anything about being black? Or a person with disabilities. Maybe it is more polite, more ‘nice’ to just ignore it, pretend everyone is equal rather than everyone having an equal chance.

Let’s call this Stage 2: Too polite to notice. Organisations who have moved to this stage may have diversity targets and aim to recruit a more diverse workforce. They may, like one large law firm I worked with, be puzzled as to why the ‘diverse’ candidates stay for much less time than the mainstream.

Now some people will get past this too. They will realise that they cannot possibly know and so they reach out and try to ask. ‘So how do you find being a woman around here?’ I know how I find it being me, and I am a woman, but that doesn’t give me the inside track to how all women think and feel.

Let’s call this Stage 3: New problem, old solution. Organisations I have worked with in this stage have done reasonably well at making their employee base look more diverse. But they are missing out on the magic of all these different perspectives by sticking to their old ways of doing things. Typically they ask for ‘the top 3 actions that will fix this problem’. They want easy fixes, like installing seat belts to reduce road deaths. But forget that unless they change the way people think, only a few people will wear them.

To reach stage 4 requires open mindedness and patience. It means accepting that I don’t know anybody else’s experience of the workplace. So I need safe, open minded, open hearted ways of finding out. And it means accepting some discomfort along the way. Some of what I hear might challenge my view that I am a basically decent human being. Some of it may make me feel defensive or irritated. There will be times on this journey when I think how much easier it would be to just work with people the same as me. Incorporating other perspectives requires us to grow – we can expect a few growing pains, but in the end it’s the only way to get stronger. It won’t be a quick fix.

Let’s call this Stage 4: opening minds. This is where the real gems are. This is where we have the opportunity to open up generative thinking and new ways of collaborating in our organisation. Where nobody ever needs to say ‘but she’s too young’ or ‘I can’t always understand what he says’. It is still rare to find organisations like this, but they are starting to exist. Maybe some have always been like that. The leaders display courage, vision and humility. Everybody feels they have the right to contribute. It’s not utopia – we are all still human after all. We all have foibles and bad days. But the fresh air of honesty and mutual curiosity can go a long way to resolving difficulties. If I say it’s red and you insist it’s blue, maybe by mutual understanding we can find a third definition that opens up new possibilities for our business or service and its users and customers.

Thanks to Ruslan’s Blog for the cartoons.

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