Real Leaders

Exploring Otherness Can Create a Stronger Team

People crossing the street in Tokyo

I was invited to meet a senior vice president of a tech company, who already ran a highly diverse, multicultural team and had just inherited another. She wanted to find the best way to integrate these disparate team members comprised of the old and new guard, men and women, several religions, various nationalities, and even different geographical offices. As their leader, how could she create a sense of shared identity and direction as soon as possible? How could she better assimilate and connect with the whole team and foster trust? This was my challenge.

The idea for my inclusiveness strategy started after the string of devastating terror attacks in London in 2017. Alongside my visceral reaction to the atrocities, I felt the familiar sense of otherness creeping back. It brought echoes of my high school days when I was at the receiving end of physical and verbal racial abuse — the racist slur “Paki” hurled at me regularly. While mourning the senseless loss of lives, I was simultaneously forced to recognize that my identity as a Muslim — a community being categorized indiscriminately as villains in the global narrative — had begun to overshadow all my other identities.

Given my background and training, I was able to self-introspect and recognize these feelings as connected to identity threat. Part of our self-identity derives from belonging to certain social groups, along with the value and social significance attached to that membership. When a group we belong to does well, we relate that success to ourselves. Belonging to a minority group presents challenges and can cause its members to feel marginalized, disconnected, and deprived of opportunity.

Leaders have to manage and maneuver within a complex melding of self and social identity. Successful leaders must be skilled entrepreneurs of identity, minding their own internal and external responses in the face of perceived identity threat. Social identity theorists propose that powerful leadership and influence greatly depend on leaders and teams sharing a sense of direction and group identity.

Back at the tech company, the first part of my workshop was exploring identity. Social psychologists have outlined how understanding and appreciation of different identities and roles can be crucial to connection and integration. An effective method of producing a safe and playful environment is through the use of art. Drawings can provide access to subconscious material and make it available for exploration to promote openness, learning, and healing.
The second part involves exploring experience via storytelling. Stories are a powerful tool to lower barriers and encourage sharing safely and comfortably, even within professional environments. Our individual narratives often highlight similar experiences and shared emotions such as fear, anxiety, excitement, and hope. Sharing stories can tap into the deeply embedded archetypes in our collective unconscious. This increases empathy, raises tolerance, and ultimately creates a sense of commonality within teams.

Exploring “otherness” is a critical and delicate part of the process, as it necessitates the participants being at their most vulnerable and outing their own sense of otherness. It also involves being honest about occasions when we have treated people like the other.

At this point in the workshop, I shared my own story about the heightened Muslim identity I felt after the London terror attacks. Leading with this personal vulnerability broke the ice. An Irish team member spoke up about the impact of Irish jokes in his London office; a female member recalled walking into a team meeting and finding a flip chart with a sexual drawing; an American Jewish member spoke about hearing an antisemitic joke while traveling; a 37-year-old remembered being part of a team where most people were under 26. The stories themselves were unique yet similar and relatable. The open sharing created an understanding of the impact of subconscious bias and how no one is really safe from it.

The final exercise is more organic. Exploring spontaneity needs a process that is physical, intuitive, or sensory; creating a new space that is meditative, reflective, energetic, and challenging. As the purpose of the tech company workshop was for the team to develop a shared identity and goal, I asked the participants to work together and create a symbol to reflect both their team identity and collective vision.

They debated and collaborated; they agreed and disagreed; they chopped and changed their minds several times. In the end, they created a multi-colored bird with broad wings. This fantastical bird represented their collective ability to take a high-level view of their markets, yet land and target with precision. It celebrated the diversity of the team, their togetherness despite the geographical space between members. They were flying together to reach their performance goals.

There is no question that we are in the midst of seismic times. Professional organizations are now obliged to take action and stop any form of injustice based on gender or color. Diversity and inclusion are now recognized as more than just the injection of minority hires into companies, but as a way of utilizing the unique strengths of a multi-racial, gender-balanced, and interconnected workforce. Ultimately, exploring our otherness can help us discover our sameness.

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