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Acknowledge Differences - and Build
My second day of college was the beginning of a very interesting story.
I was seventeen years old, and classes hadn’t started yet. In many ways, I was like every other freshman who was just starting college; a little bit scared to be away from home, feeling a little bit lonely, trying to find my way around.
I had a minor difference, though. The college I went to was overwhelmingly white, and I am black.
But I was used to it, as the high school I went to during my final two years was exactly the same. And, in my professional life, it’s continued to this day.
I had just gotten something to eat for lunch and sat down at my table, when I was joined by a very dark skinned black young man. He had a big smile on his face, but there seemed to be something a little bit different about him.
When he began speaking, I heard an accent I wasn’t used to. He said his name was Sammy, and he was from Cameroon; he was the first African person I’d ever met.
He then said he had to ask me a question, and I told him to go for it. He said that he was scared because he’d never seen any white faces before, and there were so many, and he asked me how you get used to them.
At first, all I did was laugh. In an instant, I remembered times when I was either the only one, or one of only two, throughout my life.
I remembered being on a train in Tokyo with my mother as the only two non-Japanese people going from Tokyo to Misawa. I remembered a Boy Scout jamboree in Fort Kent, Maine, when I was the only black kid out of over 300 kids over a long weekend, and how I’d made many friends that, unfortunately, I never saw again.
I remembered a bowling tournament I went to with some other kids in another town in Maine, where my walking down the street turned heads, and my going into Pizza Hut stopped all conversation, and where my appearance at the bowling alley the next day made me feel as though I was a movie star because I couldn’t remember afterwards how many hands I shook or how many people came to say hello. I do remember how badly I bowled, but didn’t care.
Once I had a moment to think about it, I told him that all he had to do was just feel confident every day at every minute that he was as good as anyone else at that college, and to realize that there were a number of people who were going to be scared of him, as well as a number of people who were going to gravitate to him, and to just be himself and everything would be all right. We shared lunch with each other that day, and it was the last meal we ever had with each other.
About three weeks later, I saw him walking to class, surrounded by five or six people, all of them laughing. He turned out to be a very popular person, and I felt good that I was able to help him get through his initial fear, even though I was scared myself.
I bring this up because it’s once again Black History month here in the United States, and this year I began thinking how, quite often, people in leadership positions really have no idea how to treat people who are different from them. For many of you readers here, think about how often you’ve been the “only” in a crowd and have it be something you’re not used to?
There are no hard rules for behavior when it comes to looking at our diverse culture.
Well, that's not exactly true; there are behaviors you’d better not exhibit, or else you and your company will face charges of discrimination or harassment eventually. In general, though, there’s nothing that says you definitely have to act any different than you usually do, though maybe you should.
There’s no rules that say you should bend over backwards to make someone who’s somehow different than everyone else feel as though they’re as valuable as everyone else, though maybe you should. And there are no rules that say you have to totally accept someone else’s differences, though you should probably think about that also.
It’s important to acknowledge people’s differences. Just as you’d acknowledge the difference between someone born in one city that another, or someone born rich as opposed to being born poor, you have to recognize the differences in all people, not just the few.
If you can do this, then when you have someone come to you for a job that may be a little bit different, you’re already prepared to know how to work with them because you’ve already come to terms with the inherent differences in people.
What this means is that, within the boundaries of the job, you’re able to give every person a fair chance, equal time, and not try to make every person conform to your idea of normalcy.
You may not be able to allow someone the luxury of practicing their religion during working hours. You may not be able to allow someone to dress in a certain way if there are dress codes that have to be followed.
But if you’re consistent in your treatment of all people, your employees will know that you care, and you will be a leader that they respect.
As you begin your next work day, take time to think about whether every person who works for you, or that you work with, feels comfortable being as much of themselves as possible in your environment. Think about whether you’ve actually tried to make everyone feel as though they’re equal parts of the team, proven ability notwithstanding.
If not, try to figure out what you can do to make everyone feel as though they’re going to have an equal chance in the office, or in life in general. Because we all have to remember that the good habits we can demonstrate in the work place will follow people outside of the work place.
And any time you have an opportunity to affect someone in a positive way, no matter where it is, becomes a good thing for every person everywhere.
T.T. "Mitch" Mitchell of T. T. Mitchell Consulting specializes in helping companies produce more effective and satisfied employees at all levels, as well as helping individuals be better and more content in their professional and personal lives. He concentrates especially on management, leadership and diversity. Read about and subscribe to his two newsletters - on management and healthcare business issues respectively - here.
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Let's Get Real: The Case for Being Consciously Authentic