Skip to content

We Need To Learn How To Bridge Difference To Drive Creativity And Innovation

2023 February 19

I have a friend who was once ambushed on a TV show panel. Being confronted with a clearly offensive remark, she was caught off-guard, said something that was probably unwise (but not untrue or unkind), and found herself at the center of a media-driven scandal. It would cost her enormously, both personally and professionally.

I often think about the episode and not just because it hurt my friend, but also because I wonder what I would have done if put in similar circumstances. My friend, who is black, muslim and female, is incredibly skilled at bridging differences and navigating matters of race, gender and religion. If she fell short, would I even stand a chance?

We are encouraged to think about matters of diversity in moral terms and, of course, that’s an important aspect. However, it is also a matter of developing the right skills. The better we are able to bridge differences, the more effectively we can collaborate with others who have different perspectives, which is crucial to becoming more innovative and productive.

The Challenge Of Diversity

There is no shortage of evidence that diversity can enhance performance. Researchers at the University of Michigan found that diverse groups can solve problems better than a more homogenous team of greater objective ability. Another study that simulated markets showed that ethnic diversity deflated asset bubbles.

While those studies merely simulate diversity in a controlled setting, there is also evidence from the real world that diversity produces better outcomes. A McKinsey report that covered 366 public companies in a variety of countries and industries found that those which were more ethnically and gender diverse performed significantly better than others.

However, it takes effort to reap the benefits of diversity. Humans are naturally tribal. In a study of adults that were randomly assigned to “leopards” and “tigers,” fMRI studies noted hostility to outgroup members. Similar results were found in a study  involving five year-old children and even in infants. Group identification, even without any of the normal social cues, is enough to produce bias.

The innate distinctions we make regarding each other carry over to work environments. When researchers at Kellogg and Stanford put together groups of college students to solve a murder mystery, teams made up of students from the same sorority or fraternity felt more successful, even though they performed worse on the task than integrated groups.

We rarely welcome someone who threatens our sense of self. So those outside the dominant culture are encouraged to conform and are often punished when they don’t. They are less often invited to join in routine office socializing and promotions are less likely to come their way. When things go poorly, it’s much easier to blame the odd duck than the trusted insider.

Group Identity And Individual Dignity

In western civilization, since at least the time of Descartes, we have traditionally thought in rational terms about how humans behave. We tend to assume that people examine facts to make judgments and that any disputes can be overcome through discussion and debate, through which we will arrive at an answer that is objectively correct.

Yet what if we actually did things in reverse, intuitively deciding what was right and then coming up with rational explanations for how we feel? Discussion and debate wouldn’t achieve anything. If rational arguments are merely explanations of deeply held intuitions, the “arguments” from the other side would seem to be downright lies or just crazy.

In The Righteous Mind, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt points to decades of evidence that suggest that is exactly how we do things. We rely on social intuitions to make judgments and then design logic to explain why we feel that way. He also makes the point that many of our opinions are a product of our inclusion in a particular group.

Hardly the product of cold logic, our opinions are, in large part, manifestations of our identity. Our ideas are not just things we think. They are expressions of who we think we are.

Talking Past Each Other

Clearly, the way we tend to self-sort ourselves into groups based on identity will shape how we perceive what we see and hear, but it will also affect how we share and access data. Recently, a team of researchers at MIT looked into how we share information—and misinformation—with those around us. What they found was troubling.

When we’re surrounded by people who think like us, we share information more freely because we don’t expect to be rebuked. We’re also less likely to check our facts, because we know that those we are sharing the item with will be less likely to inspect it themselves. So when we’re in a filter bubble, we not only share more, we’re also more likely to share things that are not true. Greater polarization leads to greater misinformation.

The truth is that we all have a need to be recognized and when others don’t share a view that we feel strongly about, it offends our sense of dignity. The danger, of course, is that in our rapture we descend into solipsism and fail to recognize the dignity of others. That can lead us to dangerous and ugly places.

In Timothy Snyder’s masterful book Bloodlands, which explores the mass murders of Hitler and Stalin, the eminent historian concludes that the reason that humans can do unspeakable things to other humans is that they themselves feel like victims. If your very survival is at stake, then just about anything is warranted and cruelty can seem like justice.

Once our individual dignity becomes tied to our group identity, a different perspective can feel like more than just an opposing opinion, but a direct affront and that’s what may have precipitated the public attack on my friend. The verbal assault was probably motivated by her assailant’s need to signal inclusion in an opposing tribe.

Building Shared Identity And Purpose

Our identity and sense of self drives a lot of what we see and do, yet we rarely examine these things because we spend most of our time with people who are a lot like us, who live in similar places and experience similar things. That’s why our innate perceptions and beliefs seem normal and those of others strange, because our social networks shape us that way.

As we conform to those around us, we are setting ourselves apart from those who are shaped by different sets of experiences. While there is enormous value to be unlocked by integrating with diverse perspectives, it takes work to be able to bridge those differences. What we hear isn’t always what others say and what we say isn’t what others always hear.

In his book, Identity, political scientist Francis Fukuyama explains that our identities aren’t fixed, but develop and change over time. In fact, we routinely choose to add facets to our identity, while shedding others, changing jobs, moving neighborhoods, breaking off some associations as we take on others. “Identity can be used to divide, but it can and has also been used to integrate,” Fukuyama writes.

Yet integrating identities takes effort. We first need to acknowledge that our truth isn’t the only truth and that others, looking at the same facts, can honestly come to different conclusions than we do. We need to suspend immediate judgment and devote ourselves to a common undertaking with a shared sense of mission and purpose.

This is no easy task. It takes significant effort. However, it is at this nexus of identity and purpose that creativity and innovation reside, because when we learn to collaborate with others who possess knowledge, skills and perspectives that we don’t, new possibilities emerge to achieve greater things.

Greg Satell is a transformation & change expert, international keynote speaker, and bestselling author of Cascades: How to Create a Movement that Drives Transformational Change. His previous effort, Mapping Innovation, was selected as one of the best business books of 2017. You can learn more about Greg on his website, and follow him on Twitter @DigitalTonto

Like this article? Sign up to receive weekly insights from Greg!

Photo by Matheus Viana on Unsplash

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Note: You can use basic XHTML in your comments. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS