Almost every team and community today is diverse in some way or another: gender, age, spirituality, professional training, ethnicity, nationality… While we respect other styles and cultures, most of us still get stuck at some point where we say, “OK, we’re different; now how do we work (or live) side-by-side? How do we harness our differences as creative assets? At a minimum, how do we simply keep from driving each other crazy?”
We might work with partners who view time as flexible and events as unfolding. This may mean that, to them, deadlines are mutable and subject to change. Meanwhile, we push ourselves and our bodies, working overtime to make sure we honor our commitment to an agreed-upon deadline. While we may respect our colleagues’ view of time management on a theoretical basis, and perhaps envy them their apparently healthy work-life balance, how do we succeed with partners who don’t seem to respect their commitments to deadlines?
Perhaps we have a neighbor or even a waiter at a favorite restaurant who communicates very directly, yet we prefer a bit more indirection, thank you. While we respect their communication style, it can get irritating and try our patience.
Too often we fail to actively seek to bridge differences because we see them as something negative, as something that separates rather than unites us. Yet, by ignoring our differences, by pretending they are not there, we imbue them with great power. Eventually they can get the best of us, surprising us at awkward moments and causing frustration and tension. Our reluctance to address differences may stem from a fear that acknowledging their existence may push us farther apart rather than allowing us to collaborate enjoyably.
So, how do we transform these differences into assets? How do we convert them from something to be denied, hidden, or tamped down, into something to be embraced and used for the good of the organization and the team?
One model that has proven quite useful over the past two decades of use comes from the classic and widely used simulation, Ecotonos: A Simulation for Collaborating Across Cultures. Called the “Four-Phase Model for Task Accomplishment,” this very simple approach guides us to first identify the similarities and differences at play in our interaction, verbally affirm them, spend time understanding them and, finally, explore how to leverage them.
How a specific team leverages similarities and differences will depend on the members of the team and their shared goals and realities. Each team creates its own team culture, ideally based upon and growing out of the first three phases of this Four-Phase Model.
As you can see in the graphic above, the Four-Phase Model is not linear, but rather each phase weaves into and out of the other. For example, understanding may lead to further identifying, or leveraging may lead to added affirmation.
A text description of the Model accompanies Ecotonos and provides further elaboration of the graphic:
- Perceiving similarities and differences
- Establishing which differences are divisive and which commonalties unite
- Creating self-awareness of one’s own strengths and styles
- Appropriate balancing of the tension between sameness and difference
- Confirming individual commonalties and differences
- Substantiating that difference is desirable
- Legitimizing difference in the eyes of the group
- Welcoming conflict and paying attention
- Attempting to understand the other person’s perspective
- Stepping into the other’s shoes
- Mirroring/exploring and discovering together
- Probing for deeper comprehension using various approaches
- Seeing an issue from several vantage points
- Defining how team members can contribute to goal accomplishment
- Agreeing on methods for utilizing team expertise
- Facilitating the generation of creative solutions
- Creating a “team” culture
- Focusing on efficiency and effectiveness
Once people become comfortable with the Identifying Phase, they may perceive the Affirming Phase as something unnecessary, a waste of everyone’s time. “We are all adults. We don’t need to give one another kudos.”
But my extensive experience proves, over and over again, that taking the time and effort to actively engage in the Affirming Phase is well worth the investment. Proceeding more slowly allows the team to accomplish more in less time, so to speak.
Below is one video that illustrates the value of affirmation in our lives. It is pretty long, but you’ll get the idea pretty quickly and I’m confident you’ll enjoy watching it.
The Four-Phase Model is one tool that can powerfully transform conflict into productivity and innovation. And, by the way, don’t forget that you are awesome!