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Leading People Who are Different Than You

All leaders, ineffective and effective leaders alike, have the same two problems. Problem might not be the right word but they all have the same challenge. The first challenge is that they are human. The second challenge is that the people they lead are human too. 

Humans don’t automatically like all other humans. We somehow find it easier to connect with people we like. We tend to stay closer to them. We talk more with people we like than people we don’t. I’m no psychologist but it seems to me we are more drawn to people who look like us, act like us, who have the same backgrounds and the same beliefs. While that may be normal it seldom helps us grow and develop. 

We need the diversity of backgrounds, beliefs and life experiences to broaden our thinking and open ourselves up to new opportunities. Leaders who hope to excel need that same broadening of their thinking. It is particularly important for leaders to embrace that diversity. Leaders must care for their people before they can effectively lead them. If you’re a leader who doesn’t truly know and value the people you are supposed to lead then it will be almost impossible for you to lead them. 

If leaders aren’t careful and intentional about how and where they invest their time they will naturally invest a disproportionate amount of their time with those members of their organization that they are most like.

But Authentic Leaders understand that it is their responsibility to lead and develop their entire team, not only the teams members they like the most and not only the team members who are most like them. 

Authentic Leaders are aware of their biases, both conscious and unconscious. They put processes in place to make certain those biases don’t get in the way of developing their people. Any of their people. 

They schedule time with every member of their team. That time includes discussions about work but also about the person. They ask questions to understand the entire person. They want to know about the person’s goals and what help they could use to achieve them. 

As a leader it is incumbent upon you to make judgments about your people. It is also important that you do that in a non-judgmental way. You can do neither of those unless you get rid of any biases you may have and the only way to rid yourself of those biases is to know and understand the person. 

I have been personally challenged in my life to overcome some of those biases. Years ago our daughter brought her new boy friend over for dinner. I’m almost embarrassed to say I was shocked by his appearance the moment he walked in the door. I had all the doubts that a parent would have. I questioned how we raised her and where we went off track. I wondered what our family and friends would say if they ever met him. 

But I’m kinda proud to say I pushed myself to expand my thinking. We had a good conversation, a nice dinner and even played a few games after. As different as he looked when he walked in the door I barely even noticed the Green Bay Packers jersey as he left. 

You may find that funny but it’s a realistic example of how unfounded biases can impact how we deal with people if we’re not careful. As a leader you are the example of successful behavior for ALL your people. If you want more open communication, better sharing of ideas, increased sharing of best practices, and more overall collaboration then you need demonstrate the value of diversity within your organization. You can talk about the value of diversity all you want but your people will do what you do far faster than they will do what you say. 

Leading people who are different than you can be very challenging. It can also be incredibly rewarding. It’s all in how you look at it. I hope you focus on the rewards rather than the challenges. 

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