How embracing diversity puts us in a learning zone
Recently I took a training from Praxis Labs on Bias and Allyship. What was unique about this training was that it was fully “immersive”. Often, in life, we talk about and wonder what it would be like to “walk in someone else’s shoes”. There clearly has been a huge body of literary work in this area, including a myriad of trainings, that especially managers sit through, time and again. But it’s also a fact that tangible results remain elusive - likely culprit, ineffective trainings and psychological discomfort to diversity (more on this later). Fully immersive learning provides hope. By leveraging VR (virtual reality) and AR (augmented reality) to center your presence in those carefully crafted real world scenario simulations. This approach can be applied to many types of skills development, it’s particularly useful for building core competencies for today’s modern workforce, such as empathy and inclusive leadership. In the immersive learning experience, I experienced what it would feel like to have your hair caressed without your permission as a black woman. It felt surreal. The discomfort was palpable. Combining elements like “Role play” with the power of immersive technology to experience these situations “First Hand”, I see an immense potential in driving the self-awareness and understanding needed to propel tangible results for Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Justice (DEIJ).
Origins of Diversity
One of my favorite quotes from Ted Lasso is “All People are Different People!” It’s such a simple phrase, it’s almost deceptive. And where do these differences come from? Well, they come from your DNA based attributes (race, gender, height, hair, eyes, …), environmental influence (religion, country, social fabric, economic standards, access to knowledge, opportunity landscape, …) and a million other factors, and life choices weaving your experience that you live moment after moment. These life experiences slowly yet surely shape the way you think. It’s the diversity of thoughts that’s at the center of all diverse experiences.
Imagine, you and everyone you know, starts their journey at the center in the visual above. Each of your diversity traits and experiences nudges you in a different direction. Now imagine, having a conversation with someone who is on the opposite end of this visual. When you interact with someone - behind each interaction, you bring in experience based learnings alongside bias, opinions, judgements, feelings - coloring and influencing your approach and reception. That’s why communication is just plain hard. Plenty of historical and ongoing research and literature on this subject is proof that it’s never going to become easy anytime soon, or perhaps ever!
Let’s explore how diversity brings out psychological discomfort with an example. Let’s say, you’re going out to watch a movie with your friends. After the movie, you go to a cafe and discuss the movie. It turns out all your friends loved the movie, but not you. While individual experience is completely subjective, and this is perfectly natural, you feel uncomfortable voicing your opinions. What’s more? Even if you do voice your opinions, you’re immediately put on the defensive - this is due to confirmation bias. While this is a relatively low-stakes scenario, 12 angry men explored the courage it took for a non-conformist to turn around the jury decision to save a life. The movie also explores how diverse individual experiences lead to the original vote of each of the jurors. It was an uncomfortable dispute - for each person involved. The approach Henry Fonda took was to challenge those unspoken notions, and bring the focus back to facts that the panel needed to objectively evaluate. By doing so, he masterfully transitioned all the jurors and the audience into the learning zone. Now you may not be faced with a life or death dilemma, but I’m sure many of you face a similar situation. Some real-life examples below…
In an interview debrief, you find yourself misaligned compared to the rest of the interview panel.
You are a female, and you join an all-male software engineering team in silicon valley.
You are a manager, newly responsible for managing engineers who don’t speak English as fluently as it’s not their first language.
People enjoy feeling comfortable. Whether it’s eating at your favorite restaurant, or enjoying your favorite movie, everyone has their own favorite things in life that make them comfortable. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to feel comfortable, it’s human nature - you optimize your surroundings for your comfort hence happiness. According to a Yale research study, humans only learn when there is uncertainty. This means if you’re not in a new or unfamiliar situation, you are not utilizing a unique part of your brain. Let’s call that area the learning center of your brain.
The learning zone model is based on this simple inquiry - “You've been asked to do something completely new. Something beyond your experience or skills. How do you react? Are you excited by the prospect of learning something new? Or do you feel stressed and overwhelmed?” I would argue that when faced with a diverse thought, you also face the same choices.
Transition to the Learning Zone may feel uncomfortable, intimidating even. You might even activate the fight or flight response, as an automatic physiological reaction to an event that is perceived as stressful or frightening. The key to unlocking your learning potential here is to bring awareness and curiosity to this challenge.
Diversity engagements are naturally uncomfortable and come with a degree of uncertainty. And it’s no surprise—we’re talking about humanity, and challenging our own perspectives, biases and personal narratives. Part of the widely-vaunted rationale for diversity is that it creates the conditions for diversity of thought; a concept based on the notion that there is a richness to be mined from differences in cultures, backgrounds, experiences, and group identities. While diversity can surely pave the way to increased innovation and creativity, it’s vital to acknowledge that it comes with the challenging potential for tension and possible friction. When we’re working with people who are very different from ourselves, we run the risk of committing micro-aggressions, of causing offense, of crossing an unseen line. With patience and repetitions, it is possible to embrace the discomfort and move towards a place where the differences are celebrated and the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.