A Research Paper By Miranda Meng, Leadership Coach, TAIWAN
Appreciating Differences Helps You Create Innovation
In a cross-cultural work environment, members bring in different perspectives, values, beliefs, history, knowledge, and skills to a company. This diversity may contribute to innovation. Yet, innovation does not simply arise because a company has a diverse composition of members.. Appreciating differences may be an opportunity for the company to channel diversity into innovation.
Appreciating differences helps you create innovation, stay with your goals, and know yourself and others more. Appreciating differences is not one action. It’s a process involving being aware of what really happens. It requires team members to confirm the goals of a situation and redirect focus (e.g., the goal of a meeting is to come up with solutions to boost product exposure instead of arguing what “supportive” means), attentively listen, acquire information and learn, express yourself in a way that other people can fully understand your intentions, and co-create values from existing differences.
From the research, we learn that
- Appreciating differences is one of the methods for leaders and companies to cultivate an environment to innovate.
- Appreciating differences offsets one hidden price of diversity since it requires communication with respect and gratitude and reinforces mutual understanding.
- Leaders at companies often unknowingly reinforce homogeneity while stating the importance of diversity, and coaching support can help overcome this gap between awareness and alignment.
What Do “Differences” Mean Here?
The differences referred to in this paper are categorized into two:
- The differences within oneself
It’s like you use the lens of “yourself” to see the world. Therefore, you and people who look different, come from different socioeconomic backgrounds, enjoy different activities, or hold different opinions from you co-create the differences.
- The differences from your expectations or foundational beliefs (Feldman, R., 2004)
Imagine a movie that does not follow your script. When things do not happen according to your will, the differences are underneath. For example, when a first-line manager tells you the business plan is not going to work, when you wonder how can all reports coming from an overseas branch are presented in this way, or when no one shows appreciation for the team-building souvenirs that actually are not cheap, your expectations or foundational beliefs for the things may be different from how others perceive them.
What Does Appreciating Differences Mean?
It means you can notice the differences among people or groups. Furtherly, you respect, show gratitude, and use these very differences to create values.
How Can Appreciating Differences Lead to Innovation?
As per reviews of the primary literature on the topic, innovation requires openness, trust, candor, and psychological safety. (Jones et al., 2020) When people feel safe to be authentic, a voice out with honest reasons, and respect others to do the same, we cultivate that space for innovation. In that environment, appreciating differences is imperative. It showcases abilities to distinguish the difference and communicate, mental maturity, respect, and expectation for all to respect others and create values regardless of differences. People need leaders demonstrating this type of behavior and to know that their appreciation is genuine, free, and unconditional
Recruiting members from diverse backgrounds do not guarantee you are innovative in production. According to a Mckinsey report, you have to ensure the representation of diverse talent, hold leadership with capabilities and stay committed to diversity and inclusion, cultivate a transparent and fair environment, promote openness and tackle microaggressions, and foster belongings. (“Mckinsey”, 2020) How is this type of environment built? Appreciating differences is one leverage point. It builds a safe and open environment for all members to contribute thoughts. In addition, because appreciating differences helps you bond with people and the relationship among people would be better, it is a key component for team members to foster belonging.
Some older research from the 20th century shows that members who come from the same background at a company outperform those with more diverse members. I argue that it may be true in a setting that requires minimal communication and is highly systemized like that of a production line, where companies want human beings to work like machines. It does take more time to discuss and reach an agreement when people come from different backgrounds. (Levin, 2020) The time and resources investment cannot create competitive work as robots do for a factory where they only want production with the lowest error rate in the tightest time schedule. However, it may be worth investing in because companies need the benefit from those differences. It’s worth noting that human capital is becoming ever more important at the top creative brass of the world’s leading companies. Nowadays, companies have to deal with complex problems and serve different groups of people in an environment with non-stop changes. We also can sense how this ties in closely with research in the last two decades. Diversity can benefit a company to scrutinize a topic more thoroughly and know different audiences better. According to research from Harvard Business Review, one person on the team coming from the desired market will increase sales dramatically. Understandably this comes from the nuanced understanding of an individual that, albeit different, culturally embodies the desired market (Hewlett et al., 2013)
Appreciating differences can open more profound influences. When you appreciate differences, you can cultivate a company culture where everyone feels encouraged to be themselves. This may increase the personal connection with companies. In addition, you create a positive cycle for all people to contribute. People know in this open and safe environment they can share their thoughts comfortably. Together the team comes out with better designs since the ideas were tested from different angles. People will continue to contribute in this manner not only because they see positive results, but because they experience the process and learn that their voices matter and no one takes any punishment for telling their truths.
Coaching for Appreciating Differences
Appreciating differences is the start of powerful communication and of building positive relationships. It is an invitation to know the other side, the situation, and thereby know yourself more deeply. It is also a bridge among all members so people can visit different ideas and feelings from other sides. Ideation is stimulated and unconscious biases are ameliorated. (“McKinsey”, 2020) In addition, discussion can be more focused with comprehensive scrutinization. Then, together the crew can create values based on the conversation and increase mutual understanding.
What’s the Role of a Coach on This Topic?
Take companies in the global pharmaceutical industry as an example. They have coaches to support them to enhance their learning and the initial results are encouraging. (Jones et al., 2020). To appreciate differences, you need to involve awareness, communication skills, sensitivity to people, and knowledge of the context. (Feldman, 2004) To have effective communication, you have to know yourself first. And then, you can use your senses and understanding to observe yourself and name your emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. (Russell-Chapin, 2017) A coach can help clients raise awareness and basically clarify whatever is on the clients’ side.
There are many areas coaches can support executives and the company to learn by appreciating difference and innovating. Below are some areas:
- Clarify and align words and actions:
Executives often say they agree with the impact of appreciating differences. Yet, their behaviors may not be aligned. For instance, when they point out a difference, the way they do it may separate themselves from others. It’s you versus me, instead of us. When they see the relationship between their behaviors and what they preach, they may have deeper thoughts and adjust actions accordingly.
- Extract benefits from appreciating differences:
As per previous statements, appreciating differences leads to varied values. How do executives want to draw the impact out to enhance the benefit? How can the learning link back to business strategy? How do involve more people to commit to creating an environment for innovation? (“McKinsey”, 2020) Moreover, they can also learn from the reasons that people resist appreciating differences. For example, they may learn how much some members need security. This learning helps communication and forming a more suitable company policy for everyone involved.
- Learn company dynamics from observing how appreciating differences is spread throughout the company:
Observing how appreciating differences is applied in the company can help executives see the dynamics and learn more about people. The learning may help executives adjust strategy to stimulate innovation and more efficient daily operations.
What Is Not in the Literature but With Potential Values in Coaching
- A Possibility to Grow Leaders’ People Skills and Leadership
By enhancing the ability to notice differences and seeing those as learning and value-added opportunities, people can improve their people skills and level up their leadership. Every person is different. No matter if we share the same age, come from the same country, go to the same schools, or consider ourselves the same gender, we possess a uniqueness that is different from others. It’s not confined to a particular category of differences. It is impossible for anyone to be well-informed of all differences among humans or how a thing can be handled. However, if leaders can see the differences, be open and willing to learn from them, and respect every individual, they can better their leadership skills and use their impact to expand their values.
- A Support for Clients to be Well-informed and Draw Boundaries
Support for clients to be well-informed requires people to look closely and with high awareness while discovering differences. This process provides more information for people and helps them think more deeply. Furthermore, they may learn how to decide to respond to situations where they notice the differences, they may need to be sure about what they want, what their values are, and how their emotions are triggered. Then, they may need to analyze and judge. After this thorough thinking process, people’s responses draw a boundary. Appreciating differences does not mean you take all opinions and agree with everyone. It is an opportunity for people to think and learn, then co-create.
- A Reinforcement of Benefit When Clients Introduce Assessments to the Companies
When clients do not hire professionals to brief and conduct assessments, they may not create the desired outcomes. After investing in assessments, such as MBTI, CliftonStrengths, and Hogan, clients may silently allow the results of assessments to become a tool to create subgroups or an excuse to not continue communication because that person is like that. However, coaches can support the company to use assessments from the perspective of appreciating differences. Therefore, teams are supported to know themselves and each other more and appreciate how the differences can be mutually beneficial.
Appreciating Differences Supports Companies to Innovate
Appreciating differences supports companies to innovate. When this perspective partners with a diverse workforce, companies can take advantage of the cross-cultural environment they create. And with support from coaches, clients can further reinforce these values to overcome the hidden costs of diversity and unleash the value creation of innovation that lies within their people.
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