“Only if we can see the universe as one,
In which each part reflects the totality
And in which the great beauty lies in its diversity,
We will begin to understand who we are and where we stand.”

Titian Terzani

“Every time it’s a confrontation, I just can’t understand that guy how he thinks,” a manager struggling with a co-worker with whom there is just no understanding tells me in exasperation. “The good will is there, I’m sure, but then when we confront each other there is no way to understand each other, what a struggle!”

Statements of this kind represent only one of three colorful forms in which the topic of diversity faces the company. So much so that it has been increasingly talked about in recent years. At the end of the day, however, the task of companies is to bring diverse contributions to integration toward common goals, and as Franz Kafka said, “the hard thing is not to do things, the hard thing is to understand people.”
A boundless territory of investigations, research, methods, and practices since the 1980s invests the world of work grappling with the problems of gender discrimination, the multi-ethnic population, and the need to find a common orientation within the multiple cultures that are beginning to be co-present in organizational settings. It is from this perspective that the so-called diversity management, or that strand of studies aimed at recognizing, understanding, accepting, and valuing differences among people in organizational contexts, was born.

It is an issue that comes to attention today more than in the past, because diversity in the ranks of companies has certainly increased: very young people alongside seniors of mature age, women entering professions in which a female presence was once unthinkable or attempting to climb to the top levels of the organization, different cultures and religions that impose even major rethinks of schedules, habits, and ways of communicating.
However, it cannot be forgotten that one of the foundations on which diversity rests is undoubtedly that of the personality characteristics, the basic orientations of individuals, their way of dealing with other people, tasks and situations. An area in which managerial expertise has traditionally been scarce, if not nonexistent, and which instead deserves broader consideration, not least because it has the virtue of being across those types of diversity (related to age, gender, culture, etc.) about which so much is said.

In fact, when one wants to work thoroughly on leadership and interpersonal relationships, an accurate knowledge of these discriminants seems really useful. Having some frame of reference for interpreting “how people think” (or even: how they rant!) can make a difference and begin to build a greater awareness of what it means to be different, from various perspectives.

Many models exist. I cite as an example the important contribution of C.G. Jung, who explores how people relate to the outside world and to others. Known as the Theory of Psychological Types, it proposes to classify the approaches of different people on the basis of four axes whose polarities are Extroversion-Introversion, Thinking-Feeling, Intuition and Sensation, and Judgment and Perception. At the diagnostic level, one of the most widely publicized elaborations is the MBTI test, commonly used for management and team development.
The usefulness for the manager to acquire skills in reading these important dimensions certainly lies in a better understanding of what is happening in teams and work groups and to absorb some underlying attitudes that can amplify one’s organizational effectiveness. I will try to enumerate some of the basic assumptions and their important implications:

  • People are different in the way they think and give attention to things (not everyone is like us!).
  • There is no “perfect” way of doing things; each type of approach has advantages and disadvantages.
  • Effective managerial action takes diversity into account, integrates it and enhances it.
  • The manager does not employ the same language (e.g., numbers) with everyone, but calibrates his or her action in relation to each person’s preferences.
  • With those whose way of approaching things differs from ours we tend to tune in with greater difficulty , but …
  • Relating well only to those like us impoverishes us and tends to create “clones.”
  • Knowing our attitude toward reality can help us not to forget the areas in which we are less comfortable, which we tend to “not see” (shadow zones), to develop poorly cultivated potential, to avoid the traps into which we can easily fall

At the organizational level, transposing individual psychological typologies, it might be useful to understand when and how active the company is in each area and what preferences are most in evidence: is it an “introverted” company that looks primarily inward? Is it predominantly anchored in current facts and perhaps not very strategically and vision-oriented (Insight)? Are people’s feelings left in the shadows (Sentiment, i.e., climate) and no one feels they should be dealt with?
In short, the four psychological polarities can serve as a cue for a broader understanding of individual differences in terms of prevalent types and give us suggestions on how to deal with them.

Otherwise you run the managerial risk that Paulo Coelho admirably pointed out, “You are a different person who wants to be the same. And that, from my point of view, is to be considered a serious disease.”

Barbara Parmeggiani

Anthropologist, Consultant & Coach

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