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Businesses around the world are often on the hunt for ways to stand out. And while many struggle with figuring out how to differentiate themselves within their market, they often overlook an asset they already have that can serve as a competitive advantage: the uniqueness of the individuals on their team.
Last week, Jason Momoa wowed onlookers at the Aquaman premiere when he led a haka, a ceremonial dance originating from Maori culture in New Zealand. Over the years, as haka has spread around the world, it took root in Hawaii where they developed their own version of the tradition. Momoa, who plays the title character in the film, is from Hawaii. His kids participated in the haka as well.
I was delighted the whole time I watched the performance. I couldn’t help but think about why a scene like this was so remarkable. I love learning about cultures different from my own, and it was refreshing to see someone put their culture front and center while at work.
The challenge is that far too many people check their culture at the door when they come to work, in an effort to fit in. No bueno.
How a culture of fitting in harms your ability to win new customers
Kenji Yoshino is a professor at New York University School of Law and author of the book Covering: The Hidden Assualt on Our Human Rights. Yoshino defines covering as the ways people downplay aspects of their identities for the purpose of fitting in and getting ahead both professionally and personally.
The areas where most people tend to engage in covering are related to race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and disability. Yoshino’s research uncovered that 61 percent of people cover on at least one of these four dimensions: appearance, affiliation, advocacy, or association.
In other words, six out of ten people don’t feel comfortable enough to bring their full selves to work. Instead, they intentionally work to check aspects of who they are at the door in an effort to fit in. The research revealed that 45 percent of straight white men report covering on one of the four dimensions as well. People from all backgrounds are working hard to fit in.
Sometimes covering occurs by choice, when an employee decides that this is what is required to fit in. Other times covering happens as a result of comments or “advice” given by others in positions of authority. Early on in my corporate career, I remember being advised that I shouldn’t eat lunch frequently with other black colleagues in the company cafeteria. The implication was that if we were together all the time, it gave the appearance that we weren’t open to building relationships with others. Boo.
The psychological impact of such comments can have far-reaching effects that can follow people for their full career, even when they no longer working in corporate. Earlier this year when I was planning to do a photo shoot to update my branding, I hesitated when deciding how I would style my hair. I wanted to wear a braided pompadour, but thought it might be “too much” and others might not consider it “professional.”
Thankfully, after a day of thinking about it, I realized I needed to show up as my full self, and if my hairstyle made clients not want to work with me, then it was likely those were not my ideal clients. The good news: I got my hair styled the way I wanted, and received rave reviews for the photos.
While many people feel covering is what they need to do to get ahead, the idea that everyone needs to fit in can actually do your company more harm than good. If the majority of your team is working to fit in with what seems “normal” then the same “normal” ideas will be produced over and over again.
Your team won’t feel comfortable calling on aspects of their own backgrounds and life experiences if they deviate too much from the status quo. If businesses only produce products, services, and experiences that the mainstream considers standard, it will be difficult for what you produce to effectively serve those customers who don’t fit neatly into what is considered mainstream.
Business is about belonging. But true belonging means that you can bring your full self to work each day, and know that you will be accepted, supported, and appreciated. True belonging happens when a person feels like their quirks and differences are an asset, rather than a liability, or something that needs to be hidden.
If your team doesn’t feel they belong with you, it will be difficult for them to make your customers feel like they belong. If your customers don’t feel like they belong with you, it will be difficult to earn their loyalty.
The more we perpetuate the notion that fitting in with the mainstream is preferred, the more we rob our teams of the power that diversity, inclusion, and belonging can bring.
You will win more customers when you deliver remarkable experiences on a consistent basis. Experiences that keep your customers coming back for more are not those that blend in with all the others. They are the ones that boldly stand out for their uniqueness.
And your team will only be able to produce remarkable products, services, and experiences on a consistent basis when they know it is more than ok to be themselves at work.
Jason Momoa and his team did that by putting his culture on full display at the Aquaman premiere. No one talked about it being inappropriate. Most noted how remarkable it was. In fact, the buzz from the display introduced more people to the movie and got them interested in seeing it. Self-included.
As you work to build and nurture a company culture that helps you win more customers, focus on creating a space for your team that helps them feel comfortable speaking up and leaning into their differences, rather than covering them up.
December 19, 2018 at 05:46AM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs