Some time ago, I read a book called “A Peacock in the land of Penguins”. The book was written by B.J. Gallagher Hateley and Warren H. Schmidt and it tells the story of an organization of Penguins who seek to differentiate themselves from the competition by hiring birds of a different feather.
As the story goes, one such bird was Perry the Peacock. At first, the relationship between him and the penguins was a good one. The Penguins were delighted with the idea that Perry would bring a refreshing new perspective to their operation and Perry, being an ambitious sort, was equally delighted to be chosen. But then, the tide changed. Some of the penguins complained that Perry was too loud and showy. They liked his work but were uncomfortable being around him. He didn’t fit in. And so, they took him aside and suggested to him that it might be better if he wore a penguin suit and moderated his behaviour. There is more on this story here but you can well imagine that the battle between “let’s try something new” and “this is the way we do things around here” commenced soon after.
Unfortunately, this story is not an unfamiliar one to people who look at the world through a different lens. As children, they are the ones who are less likely to be included and more likely to be bullied, ignored or ridiculed. And, when they grow to adulthood, they are often expected to conform to a set of standards that makes no sense to them at all.
The good news is that many of these folks manage to extract themselves from what might have otherwise been mind-numbing existences and to fly to dizzying heights of success simply by insisting on being themselves. And, if they hadn’t we would perhaps not have had the benefit of the genius of Einstein; the vision and technical capabilities of Bill Gates; the imagination and creativity of Ron Howard and Steven Spielberg; or even the brilliance of Michelangelo and Leonardo DaVinci.
These people, and many others, found ways to express their uniqueness, no doubt in the face of opposition from those who mistrusted or even feared the changes they were destined to bring to the world.
So what can leaders learn from this? Well, I can think of three things at the moment and here they are:
- You will waste your time if you try to fit a peacock into a penguin suit.
If you hire people who bring new, fresh, talent and ideas to your workplace and then go about trying to make them conform to the existing organizational culture, you will not only waste your time and theirs but you will also miss a golden opportunity to add value and uniqueness to your business. People who may be considered eccentric or even socially inept could be the very treasures you need to take your business into the future. And, if they are not the golden nuggets you expect, then at the very least they will add an interesting dimension to what might otherwise be a pretty flat landscape.
- Focus on what is present, not on what is missing
As humans I think we are wired to look first at what we don’t have, and then consider what’s left if we have time. Simply put, if we truly value diversity and what it brings to the workplace we will first focus on what people bring to the organization before we look at what they don’t bring, and then decide how truly important the missing bits are.
- If you feel uncomfortable working around people who view things differently or behave differently from you, there is likely an opportunity lurking to learn something. Suck it up and start asking questions
Feeling uncomfortable is sometimes a trigger that needs to be pulled to create deeper understanding between and among people. Asking questions (respectfully of course) is a good way to learn about how other people think and what they want. It’s also a good way to build relationships and ease our own disquieting feelings too.
Here is a link to an article from The Pipeline Style on Tap entitled “From Outcast to Awesome, 17 Famous Nerds Who Paved the Way”