One of my favorite movies growing up was Il Sorpasso (The Overtaking). In it, fate brings together a brash and overconfident man, Bruno, and a shy law student named Roberto. Over the course of two eventful days, the two discover how many preconceived ideas they have of each other. I will not give the ending away, but suffice to know the experience is transformational and heartstopping at once.
We often encounter people who are different from us and our natural tendency is to make a judgement call as to who they are based on their appearance and/or value system. While it is easy (but not recommended) to surround ourselves of friends who are like us, we do so because we draw comfort from our similarities and life choices.
Our work environment is altogether another story.While our unconscious bias and value system pushes us to try and collaborate with those who are like us, we don’t always have the luxury to choose. I am the first to acknowledge that I have been biased and have been at the receiving end of bias. I used to work with a Professor who had explicitly told our co-workers that I was arrogant and not someone he wanted to work with. And guess what? The feeling was mutual. I thought he was overbearing, old fashioned and self-centered. To this day the two of us have never even been formally introduced. We were both wrong for having those feelings.
I have reflected on this and I now propose to you that we should seek opportunities to engage those who are different from us. Why so? Life’s too short! I can almost hear you asking.
There’s plenty of research that points to the value of stretching oneself outside of the comfort zone. I certainly experienced it. I learned from my mistakes and spent a great deal of time to face the demons of my biases so that I could surface what scares me or annoys me. I now make an extra effort to spend time with those who I might otherwise reject or dismiss.
But that’s not the main reason why we should engage those who are different. For me the real breakthrough happened when I reflected on what companies do when they create their business strategy. Companies who are successful in executing their strategy are the ones that do not bury their head in the sand, but the ones who look for insight from those relationship that make them uncomfortable; relationships with unhappy customers, brash competitors, challenging employees, etc. In doing so, they learn what they could do better and also gain confidence in what they are doing right.
This is true for us as individuals as well. Only if we know what we are up against, can we really develop and create the best version of our own selves. Here’s what I did to change my old pattern of behavior. I first recognized that it was natural for my brain to take shortcuts and rely on past experiences to determine whether I “liked” someone I had not met before. I then spent time asking disparate questions so that I could learn more about that individual. By opening myself up to the experience, I gained more insight than I got grief or pain. I learned temperance and the ability to truly listen to what others whom I might disagree with have to say. And that way, unlike Bruno, I did not have to suffer the consequences of my unconscious bias.
It’s not always easy (it takes two to want to connect), but I know I am much better for trying. We all have different coping mechanisms. How do you manage uncomfortable relationships at work?
This article was written by Joe Carella, Assistant Dean at University of Arizona, Eller College of Management