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[RMIT MANAGER, ORGANISATIONAL DEVELOPMENT ERIN FREEMAN TALKS TO GAYNOR WITTS, DIRECTOR, ORGANISATIONAL DEVELOPMENT, ON A SPLIT-SCREEN VIDEO CALL]
[ERIN FREEMAN IS SHOWN SEATED IN AN OFFICE. SHE SPEAKS DIRECTLY TO CAMERA]
Welcome, Gaynor, to the Leadership Series, it's a pleasure to have you.
It's awesome to be here finally.
We've got a few quick questions for you today, but today's topic is on valuing differences, which we felt was a really important topic to cover at the moment, it's really topical. First of all, I want to ask you what valuing difference means to you.
I think it's a really tricky one. It is topical at the moment with everything that's going on around the world, particularly in the States at the moment. You can't you can't be anywhere without seeing the impact of what happens when people don't value difference, and I think it's a heightened topic for all of us right now. I guess for me, what it means is to be able to understand that everybody is different than me - other than those that are exactly the same as me and there's not many of those in the world - and to be able to understand that we all bring something unique or brilliant about ourselves that is very different to others.
I think the danger of it is that it's much more comfortable being with people like us. It makes for an easier meeting; it makes for a much “flow-ier” day, if you like, being around people that are like us. And I think there's a comfort in that that for many of us. We can revert back to being with people like us, often, because that's where we get our comfort from and we get affirmation of our ideas being really good ones, all of those kind of things. But I think with difference, it means that it might not feel as comfortable: I normally know that I'm surrounded by difference of opinions and thoughts when it's just not quite as comfortable for me. But the ideas are so brilliant that if I can just be with it and listen, we always end up with a better product as a result of it.
But what I do notice when you have lots of difference in a meeting, say for example when we're trying to solve a problem, is that it feels different because there's such a lot of it and people are coming from completely different start points, experiences, backgrounds. And I think that's one of the things that I notice most. But for me, I guess the question is about ‘what does it mean to me’, it means that people are in places to be able to see the good in people aren't just like them.
Yeah, that's a really good summary of valuing difference. When have you seen leaders do it well?
Lots of times, actually, I think there are more and more occasions where you can see people doing it well. I think when you look at different ways of working now: we do lots of group activity around solving problems, changing the way we work, agile ways of working, putting everybody together in a confined space with a set of parameters or guidelines to follow that enables us to go through a process to solve a problem. And the only way that works is by having lots of difference of opinion in the room, so that you can truly explore a problem from all different angles rather than a very narrow view.
Also I think when leaders are really open to difference, you see it in their teams. You see the teams have come from a variety of backgrounds or they're willing to express their thoughts. I think in a team meeting where people are very open and willing to say that they have a different view or hold a different opinion than somebody else that's talking, that's when you see it working really well, and usually that flows through to the outcome as well. You can see a much more rounded way of solving the problem or whatever it was the team are working on, and you see a much more robust and well-rounded offering at the end of it.
And then conversely, what does it look like or when have you seen it when leaders perhaps aren’t valuing diversity?
Yeah, it's really interesting because, sadly, we still do see that across all different sectors, not just our own. But because of how I started this, because it’s much more comfortable to be with people like us and who affirm our own ideas and ways of thinking - it’s easy as a leader to fall into a trap. You have so much on; you often go down that path of least resistance. You know, you have an idea, you know that your team are going to say it's a brilliant one, and then you go forth and commit to the idea at hand. And I think when leaders do it badly that's what you see: you see flaws in an argument because it hasn't been considered enough, potentially, from different viewpoints.
But equally, you see teams that are very like each other; there isn't any diversity of thought. There's no difference in backgrounds or experience; we don't have any difference full stop - and I think that still happens for many leaders across different sectors.
I remember a time back when, I worked in financial services for a long time. And one of the areas I worked in was a call center. They had 22 different nationalities within that call center, all speaking within their native tongue to answer assistance calls from all over the world. And it was a really interesting place to work because - not only did we have all these different cultures and languages represented - we all had very different working styles, things that were important to us, priorities were very different, values were very different as well. So it made for a real interesting place to work.
But the leaders, there some of them handled it beautifully, and some didn't. And what you saw was the isolation of certain groups of people, particularly if they held different views. That was difficult to work in.
And also what we saw was, we tried to squash everybody into a very same set way of working - and it just didn't work. It ended up being so bland, it didn't suit anybody. It was when I was in the UK, actually, living and working there. And what we did was just try and make everybody like us, instead of respecting that people do things really differently. And it was such a disaster! We had so many people issues, complaints, high absenteeism - It was such a horrible place to work.
In the end what we decided to do was just try and fix it so that everybody found a place that they could call home-slash-work within the environment, with some really silly examples.
One of them particularly - about how the cafe would remain open only through the main shift patterns, but where they worked, honour was incredibly important, and they felt that we didn't trust them by not having the cafe open at night time because it was too expensive to run. What they said to us was, honour is so important in our culture, and where we're from, that we want you to trust us. Leave the cafe open - albeit on a limited stock - and we will pay for what we use. And it was such a terrifying concept for the leadership team to be able to agree to this. But what we realized was, it was actually nothing to do with the café, but that was the symptom of what we had. It was all about being able to show them the way they had trust and honor - as huge values of theirs, that if we trusted them, we would leave the cafe open. So we did and we never had any problem with the cafe open. It's such a small example, but what it showed was that when we met them in their area of difference and were able to understand what was important to them.
Then we changed how we worked - from really little examples like that, to much bigger ones. And it did turn out to become a really successful place, and actually won the European Call Center of the Year Award that year, which was enormous, given how many call centers live in Europe. And none of them had quite the cultural diversity that they experienced in that particular call center.
Wow. So if you were going to mentor a leader who perhaps identified that they maybe weren't as strong on valuing differences - they took a look at their team and realised it was quite homogenous, perhaps realised that they were referring to the same people and hearing the same voices to make decisions - if you were going to mentor or coach that leader, what advice would you give them to sort of build up their “valuing the difference” muscle?
Yeah, I think it's all about comfort, Erin. Because when you're comfortable with yourself and your opinions, you're likely to allow other people around you to challenge you.
So firstly, before you ever make any big changes in your team, or your structure, or the people that you surround yourself with, get really comfortable with being challenged. Seek out people that you trust and ask them to find holes in your argument or pick flaws in something that you're trying to do, so you get comfortable with being challenged on the way you think.
I also think it's really important just to see who it is you hang out with, and who you surround yourself with and see - in all areas of your life - how much diversity you have. Typically, I find that if you are more comfortable around lots of different people, with lots of different viewpoints and experiences, that will flow into the workplace too.
But I think the most important lesson is to look for people who have a different viewpoint than you, and try and understand where that comes from also. And I guess, as a leader, where I find is that the more willing the team around me are to challenge me the absolute better in 100% of the cases is that the ideas, turn out to be, but it is all about comfort. And I think when you've got lots of different people around, your ability to get comfortable lessens.
So you have to get really comfortable with the idea of being uncomfortable, and be willing to sit with it for a while. Because it's not easy, and actually as human beings, most of us would just prefer that somebody tells us our ideas are brilliant, rather than challenging them. But I think it's a huge part of being a leader is being able to accept that challenge, accept the difference of opinion.
And more than that, celebrate it! Actively seek out people who are different than you. And I think you know you've got it right, when you're in a meeting with a million different opinions being thrown out there, people are very comfortable to share them, but it's a much well-rounded finality of it all, I guess.
Yeah, and I think that's something we can really learn from academia because in academia, you’re taught that it's a gift to critique someone's work. It's a gift to critique someone's ideas to make the research better, and the outcomes. So I think that's something we can take from the academy, if you like
Well, we see that all the time in fact we talk about collaboration, in many other ways, but certainly through any research project anything that academics are working on. They are known to collaborate differently, they're known to seek out diversity and difference, collaborating across geographies and time zones. In fact, I think it's one of the great originalities of diversity of opinion – it comes absolutely from this world of academia that we find ourselves in now which is so awesome.
Thank you so much for your time today again we really appreciate you being on the leadership series.
Yes, thank you Erin, it was great to be here.
Speak soon. Bye bye.