According to scientific research, the first things we notice about someone are their race and gender. Because right or wrong, we are assessing how different or similar they are to us. The similarity comforts us. The differences can threaten us.
To deal with this fear of others who are different, we create and live in bubbles. Recently, we witnessed the societal consequences of isolating in our bubbles with the murder of George Floyd and others and the subsequent protests, and we must recognize that we need to reach out and find common ground with people who are different than we are and not feel threatened.
Professionally, we must be aware that our bubbles will sabotage our leadership as we isolate ourselves from diversity of thought. This protective cocoon and all the assumptions we make to strengthen it, do more harm than good. Our personal bubble prevents us from being successful leaders.
The damage occurs when we refuse to entertain other points of view; when we avoid reaching out to others whose opinions may differ from our own. We hire teams that don’t challenge us. We seek out like-minded people who confirm our beliefs. We find comfort in the status quo and our point of view. We read article and books that validate that we’re right and other people are wrong. We may even become self-righteous in our opinions then are blinded to other ideas and concepts that will help us grow professionally and personally. And yes, maybe we listen to others, but do we truly listen or are we are always subconsciously looking for validation that we’re right?
We need to form solid opinions in order to be a strong leader. But until we see how dangerous it is to isolate ourselves from different ideas, we won’t grow professionally or personally. The stronger your bubble, the more its negative influence on your leadership success, business, and relationships.
When we’re satisfied and engaged with our own thoughts, we don’t reach out to others who may be different. And because our society today focused on differences rather than commonality, we form special interest groups to support our like-mindedness and thereby empower us. We don’t see the need to communicate with others to find common ground. Workplaces now have many affinity and special interest groups, but if we are truly to create a diverse and inclusive workplace and society, we need to break out to learn more about others. Unfortunately, we fail to do this. We constantly make assumptions about people based on age, religion, race, gender, social status, where they went to school. These assumptions dictate who we hire, who we promote, who we sponsor, who we give special assignments and opportunities to.
To be successful as a leader, we need to determine a common goal and what our common interests are in achieving that goal and work together to make that happen.
Maya Angelou says, “I note the obvious differences, between each sort and type, but we are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike. We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.”
Our self-protection harms our leadership. Despite the strong business case for diversity, we only hire like-minded homogeneous teams that stifle creativity. Subsequently, we run the risk that our competitors will win more market share and our business will fail. We emerge as a weak and flawed leader who doesn’t drive innovation and increased revenue. Good leaders always look for new data and new ideas that might offer strategies that their companies can benefit from next.
How do you break out of your bubble to strengthen your leadership?
Have direct communication when possible. I interviewed Julie Sweet, the CEO of Accenture, for a Forbes article. At the time of the interview in 2016, she was new to the position. She was hired from outside the firm. She knew she had a challenge reaching out to employees given the huge responsibility, geography, and shear number of people. But Julie was also savvy enough to understand that people would be making assumptions about her, her background, her leadership. There would be concern about what would change under her leadership. Julie decided instead of just sending memos, she would do regular video communications so that people could experience her directly. She sent out a new policy or policy update for everyone to review and then created a video to explain the policy, the thinking behind it, and what it would mean to everyone. This approach has been extremely successful. As a leader, direct communication with your employees is vital.
Expand your horizon. Make a commitment to become more curious and open to learning more about new subjects and people; people who may have different backgrounds or different points of view; people who challenge your thinking. When you find yourself looking for quick answers, pause and ask yourself, “what assumption am I making here?” “What do I need to do to get the facts or clarify someone’s position?”
Meet with department heads along with their employees. Break the bubble that most leaders find themselves in where they rely solely from information fed to them by their direct reports. The lack of accurate firsthand information contributes to the downfall of many leaders, and there’s a term for it: executive derailment; when we isolate ourselves from others and the critical information we need to lead the company.
In your staff meetings, encourage conversation and sharing of information. This brainstorming is where real innovation and creativity are born. When people feel safe, there is an open exchange of ideas. Notice when you are doubling down and set in your own perspective and stop and listen to others.
And most importantly, admit you don’t have all the answers all the time, because you don’t. No one does. Respect, honor and be open to different opinions and ideas and your leadership and business will benefit.
Bonnie Marcus, M.Ed, is an executive coach, speaker, and author of The Politics of Promotion: How High Achieving Women Get Ahead and Stay Ahead, and the upcoming book, Not Done Yet, about women over 50 in the workplace (March 2021)