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Embrace Discomfort and Encourage Diversity

October 24, 2016 by Amy Gilburg

I recently attended an event at my son’s school: a talk by the school psychologist about how to help our kids navigate the complex social environment of elementary school. The big take away for me was the importance of letting my son feel uncomfortable—to struggle even—because swooping in to fix a possible challenging situation isn’t helpful or advised. This guidance is contrary to my first instinct as a mom, to keep my son safe from experiencing pain—physical or emotional!  But it is the very discomfort that enables him to mature and expand his capacity.

I couldn’t help but consider the ways we as adults and professionals shy away from feeling uncomfortable—how we might label situations and people as uncomfortable or difficult and look for ways to minimize or marginalize their impact.

A recent conversation with a client illustrated this clearly. Marie was getting ready for an important meeting with her senior leadership team. She was looking forward to digging into some difficult topics and making a plan to address the most pressing issues. She was very excited, but also expressed a concern. One of the members of her team was ‘difficult’. I was curious as to what this meant. She explained how a meeting would be going well, discussion would be robust and productive and the ‘difficult’ team member, Anna, would ‘drop a bomb’. The bomb would highlight why something wouldn’t work or identify new issues to consider. The timing, method, and lack of awareness would create tension in the whole team. Marie had even overheard two team members comment it was easier when Anna wasn’t able to attend the senior leadership team meeting.

So, what was the real problem? Was Anna really the problem or was it the lack of ease she created? When pressed further, Marie admitted that Anna often brought up important points, but it always created discord.

As humans, we are wired to resolve cognitive dissonance and one way to do this is to discount data that proves our perspectives or ideas wrong. We strive for consistency between our internal alignment of beliefs, values, or ideas with the external world. This motivates us to reduce any tension, or better yet, completely avoid it by seeking out people and experiences that align with what we believe to be true.

But, what if discomfort is good for business? What if the more diverse a team is in perspective, experience, gender, race, personality type, etc., the more successful they are? David Rock, Heidi Grant Halvorson, and Jacqui Grey explored this idea in a recent Harvard Business Review article, Diverse Teams Feel Less Comfortable and That's Why They Perform Better.

Knowing Anna’s diverse perspective is good for the team and their program of work is different than actually working together well. Marie and I spent some time developing a plan to help shift the team’s current dynamic.  She began by creating a new story about Anna for herself. Instead of seeing her as ‘difficult’, she decided to interpret her actions as those of being in service to the team. In addition, Marie started to view discomfort in a more positive way. She planned to talk with Anna and discuss her goals for shifting the team culture to one that embraces differences and wanted to be sure Anna saw her role in a positive light.   Below are some of the other ideas we discussed:

  • Explore the pros and the cons of diversity with the team. What’s at risk if the team all thinks the same, looks the same, acts the same? What are some of the biggest challenges with differences and outlier opinions and how can these be addressed well?
  • Create clear and agreed-to guidelines for how the team will operate. Include ones that honor outlier perspectives and make it OK to name discomfort
  • Practice listening and exploring differences with curiosity. Knowing that we are hardwired to shy away from differences, commit to getting curious
  • Don’t rush to decisions without doing a thorough job of exploring the nature of the issue and seeking out diverse perspectives

As for me as a mom? I am choosing to believe that a little short term struggle makes for long term positive growth.  I am committed to listening and asking questions over fixing.  What are your strategies for optimizing the positives of discomfort and embracing diversity in all its variations?