An editorial by Patricia Bouweraerts —
“Beauty is only skin deep, but ugly goes clean to the bone,” said Dorothy Parker, writer and poet — and while this is meant as a humorous wisecrack — there may be thousands, if not millions of us who go to school or work each day putting forward our best outward look, but sensing that we are “different” inside.
The first level of respect should be for our diversity of race, ethnicity, gender, age and other identified groups. There are also other forms of unaddressed diversity, differences of experience that are difficult to spot from the outside.
Many working people have traveled a life journey radically unlike their immediate co-workers, and yet this experience has nothing to do with race, ethnicity, gender, age and other protected classes.
Perhaps a majority of working people are less diverse in skin shade than at their core, the spirit brought to work. When the flood doors are opened to diversity of spirit, the river of non-uniformity starts to run briskly.
Service and structure
A VA benefits certifying official once expressed to me that former servicemen and women can experience the classroom in ways different from non-veterans.
In the military, ranks and roles are almost always identified clearly by uniform and badges. Alternatively, civilian life is filled with a mix of clothing and self-expression that can be disconcerting when an individual has depended on clear identification of roles and jobs functioning as a group in stressful or life-threatening situations.
Mentoring and group work is widely practiced in the military, because when the individual succeeds, the group achieves their common goal. Finding an answer alone by doing a Google search at a workstation alone may be counter-intuitive.
They have adjusted across years to work with policies, structured orders, and set timeframes. In civilian life, multi-faceted information comes from all directions, and they must also manage multiple projects each with its own timeline.
“The military provides structure and has a clear chain of command,” according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. “This does not naturally exist outside the military. A veteran will have to create his or her own structure or adjust to living in an environment with more ambiguity.”
Veterans need to adapt to a more competitive atmosphere than the environment of camaraderie they were used to in the military. Civilian work schedules are also many times open-ended.
“In the military, personnel do not leave until the mission is complete,” the VA wrote. “In a private sector business, an employee might be expected to stop and go home at 5 p.m., whether the ‘mission’ is complete or not. This may not be apparent to all veterans.”
Chronic pain or physical impairments
Ongoing physical conditions can impact an employee’s perception of how well their work is accepted by the team.
A colleague of mine who suffers from a life-long, physically painful condition told me that when co-workers find out about her diagnosis — a sometimes hidden, and at other times acute illness — the ideas she expresses at meetings are discounted.
She senses that her input is skipped over.
Another co-worker who was caring for a husband with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease struggled with the growing responsibilities of checking in with him during the work day, the uncertainty of his day-to-day condition, and how her supervisor would react to telephone calls at work.
I remember her saying something to the effect of “I still feel like I can make a contribution.” She left her position before she was of retirement age.
Kittie Eubank, an executive assistant at a global management consulting company, answered in 2016 a question on Quora.com, “How do you handle chronic severe pain and work effectively?”
She wrote that her four-step approach is that she listens to her body, knows what food and exercise habits work for her pain management, depends on supportive friends and an understanding boss, and has accepted her situation.
“When my office decided to go bowling, I offered to keep score because I know very well that two hours of bowling will mean at least two days — more likely two weeks — of consequences,” she wrote.
Eubank shared her condition with her boss after she was hired, and they figured out a working solution.
“Now when I’m flaring and run an hour late for work because I need my meds to kick in or I absolutely can’t get vertical and the options are working from home with fibro fog or taking the day off, I can talk to her about it,” Eubank wrote. “She knows I don’t take advantage and I appreciate the flexibility.”
Survivors of child abuse or spousal abuse may have an added struggle when critiqued.
An employee who on the outside appears to match the business casual look of his or her working peers may have grown up in a household where they witnessed a parent yelling or hitting a sibling. With this experience comes greater stress around the topic of criticism than for someone whose parents were skilled at giving both positive and negative feedback. The abuse survivor still carries the responsibility to handle their responses at work in a professional manner, but their internal struggle is real.
The spouse who was disparaged as “ugly” or “incompetent as a parent” has the potential to have an extra layer of negative self-esteem to wade through when perceiving negative comments in a job review.
Author and retired psychotherapist Mark Maginn posts the site Left-Eye-Blind.com where he addresses questions sent in by readers. One question came from a reader who said she reacted more strongly to negative comments after surviving abuse, and asked how to better recognize productive from unhealthy criticism.
“I think being able to tell the difference between healthy and unhealthy criticism difficult under normal circumstances,” Maginn wrote. “But for you, now, after a period of abuse, the distinction between the two was probably erased for you by the person responsible for harming you.”
He wrote that the lingering effect of abuse is not unlike post-traumatic stress, and that she would need to work through her past history to regain confidence and make knowledgeable decisions to protect her self-esteem.
“It is the aftermath of the abuse that you will, with good help, need to work through,” he wrote.
A great number of individuals have grown up in a household where one or both parents are immigrants; where customs, clothing style, and expectations seem unusual to those who grew up with good old apple pie, baseball, and jeans.
Instead of jeans, they wore European strumpfhose to school, or their parents spoke a different language at home, or their family is more familiar with an educational system that is different from the U.S. system. In some countries study groups are not a widely used practice. In other countries, there may be more of a culture of the collective, rather than the highly individualistic American societal norm.
This is someone who looks as though they are in the majority ethnic group, appearance-wise. They fit into the look of larger groups, but sense that they have never really closely fit.
As workers, they learn what it takes to blend with the surrounding work culture, but may for their entire working life need to rethink and plan how to dress, speak, and conduct themselves at an interview, office gathering, or adapt to a new company culture.
“Another one of the most common examples of cultural differences in the workplace is how well, and how much, someone promotes their contributions,” wrote best-sellling author and corporate consultant Mariela Dabbah on RedShoeMovement.com. “Humility is a basic value for many cultures, Hispanic culture included, which means that self-promotion is not particularly appreciated, encouraged or even taught at home.”
She added that Latinos are brought up to not promote themselves, but to just keep their nose to the grindstone and work hard.
“They are taught that they will be recognized by their hard work,” she wrote. “But the reality in workplaces across America is that people who fail to speak about their accomplishments are often passed over for promotion.”
Personality types rare or different
Creative thinkers swim in the ocean of a current societal and economic culture valuing data, rank hierarchy, measurement, and STEM — science, technology, engineering, and math.
“Although every organization claims to care about innovation, very few are willing to do what it takes to keep their creative people happy, or at least, productive,” wrote Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic in the Harvard Business Review.
He is a professor of business psychology at University College London, and at Columbia University.
Creative people most often think differently, and sometimes have a hard time fitting in with structured and organized work environments. They are experimenters and risk-takers, he added, able to also see the bigger picture. They are more motivated by recognition and curiosity than by pay raises.
“Don’t constrain your creative employees; don’t force them to follow processes or structures,” Chamorro-Premuzic wrote. “Let them work remotely and outside normal hours; don’t ask where they are, what they are doing or how they do it.”
Another personality that sometimes finds it difficult to navigate company culture are the introverts.
“As a card-carrying introvert, I am one of the many people whose personality confers on them a preference for the inner world of their own mind rather than the outer world of sociability,” wrote Laurie Helgoe Ph.D. in PsychologyToday. “Depleted by too much external stimulation, we thrive on reflection and solitude. Our psychic opposites, extraverts, prefer schmoozing and social life because such activities boost their mood.”
Introverts search for meaning, and don’t identify as strongly with the search for happiness that is valued in American culture.
“In fact, the cultural emphasis on happiness may actually threaten their mental health,” Helgoe wrote. “As American life becomes increasingly competitive and aggressive, to say nothing of blindingly fast, the pressures to produce on demand, be a team player, and make snap decisions cut introverts off from their inner power source, leaving them stressed and depleted. Introverts today face one overarching challenge — not to feel like misfits in their own culture.”
An individual who is introverted prefers time to refine a thought before responding, so if they’re asked to contribute at a meeting, they may feel most comfortable if allowed to respond by email later.
“An introvert who is silent in a group may actually be quite engaged — taking in what is said, thinking about it, waiting for a turn to speak — but will be seen in the U.S. as a poor communicator,” Helgoe wrote.
Introverts may grow their opportunities by their built-in strengths such as searching for applicable information and data online, reading articles, writing content, and using their acute powers of listening.
Diversity makes a group stronger
A diverse team produces higher quality results in the field of science.
“We found that if you write a (research) paper largely with people of your own group, it’s likely the paper gets less citations than if you write it with a broader group of people,” said Harvard University economist Richard Freeman on National Public Radio’s “Hidden Brain” program.
He analyzed citations of studies and found independent scientists cited papers more frequently when the original research team had both greater ethnic and geographic diversity.
“Ethnic diversity is an indication of ideas’ diversity,” he added. “People who are more alike are likely to think more alike and one of the things that gives a kick to science is that you get people with somewhat different views.”
A culturally diverse team also creates more innovative work in the business environment, including product design.
“Both scientific studies and common sense tell us that having people with different viewpoints onboard increases the creativity that teams will employ in solving problems,” wrote Michael Blanding on Forbes.com.
Therefore, if ethnic, geographic, and cultural diversity increases quality and problem-solving in science and business, it logically follows that adding diversity of background, life experience, and personality may raise the quality of most types of work to an even greater extent.
The most diverse thing of all is ideas.