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Vive la difference!

I was listening to the radio the other week and heard a piece that made me stop and think about the judgments we make.  A British journalist was talking about his experiences of living in Paris for the last 14 years.

He described several of his favourite areas of the city, which despite being immediately adjacent to the tourist hotspots, were passed by or missed by visitors.  Other favourites were unique and beautiful areas in the suburbs – unfairly referred to as the ‘dreaded Banlieues’ – that were largely avoided by Parisians themselves despite being within easy reach.

He described visiting each of them as stepping into ‘a completely different world’. And it was that phrase in particular that made me stop and think. Is it perhaps the fear of choosing a different route that kept the tourists from straying from the familiar and well-worn routes? Are ‘labels’ and preconceptions about the suburbs keeping the Parisians in their comfort zones?

It struck him – and me too -- that tourists and Parisians alike could be missing out on the most wonderful experiences by not opening their minds to the possibility of stepping outside their comfort zone, and made me question some of my own perceptions preconceptions of areas of I wouldn’t choose to visit.

This got me thinking about how much we all rely on our ‘comfort zones’ whilst at work. To illustrate my point, consider how many of the thousands of decisions made every day are precisely defined in a policy or procedures manual…  I’d guess that the answer is relatively few. So what is it that ‘guides’ us? A large part of the answer must be our values – ‘how we do things around here’. But I also suspect that our ‘comfort zones’ have a strong influence.  These are the things that help us intuitively sense what direction we will “lean” when we make each decision.

So whether it’s how we run meetings and how we recruit, or who we invite to meetings and who we recruit, is the lure of the familiar, the easy, and the ‘accepted’ holding us back at times? Do we overlook and even avoid those ‘different worlds’?  Do we forget that different people – whether it’s different ages, gender, ethnicity, experiences, values, knowledge or whatever -- bring different perspectives, values and thinking to the table.

Of course, I understand there are often good reasons for sticking with what’s familiar to us. It’s usually easier and doing so can stop us from doing something stupid or reckless for example. But I believe there are equally good reasons for discovering the different, for moving out of our comfort zone, extending ourselves and challenging our own preconceptions.  Because not doing so might stop us from experiencing those new, different and at times better views. And any organisation that doesn’t push itself to experience these things will limit its capacity for innovation.

I’m not advocating that we throw caution to the wind, just that we push ourselves to consider le different as an opportunity, and not a threat.

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