How to benefit from practicing “agile identity”

by | Aug 7, 2017 | Blog | 0 comments

Whether on social media or in the real world, it’s very easy to hang out with people like you – colleagues in the same organization or friends of the same gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, social class, religion, education background, geography, or etcetera.

Yet, being around people just like you is often like being in a bubble, shielding you from other points of view and acting as an echo chamber.

When you stick with your own, you also can develop an “an ethnocentric worldview.” That’s when you assume your worldview is the reality everyone has adopted and operates with.

As a counter measure, it’s helpful to practice “agile identity” – that is, immersing yourself in groups dissimilar to yours for short bursts of time and reflecting on the experience and its impact on how you identify yourself.

Even if you just observe different cultures, the exposure can be educational and also can help you increase your empathy. As a result, you can become more flexible in working with diverse groups, which will make you a more effective and productive leader and colleague.

Over the years, a variety of groups have invited me into their worlds primarily because of my role as a consultant, facilitator or coach. The exposure has provided me with some memorable experiences and life lessons.

Here are three examples of my benefiting from being a stranger in a strange land.  

Interpreting for the deaf. Early in my career when I was living in Fairfield County CT, The Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf asked me to serve as one of their facilitators for their conference proceedings in Hartford, CT.

The evening entertainment one night was a live concert at a local theater several miles from the conference facilities. One couple, both deaf and interpreters for other non-hearing individuals, invited us three facilitators to join them, including riding over in their car’s backseat.

During the drive, the couple started arguing. (Even though I don’t know sign language, it seemed like a spat, and the two other facilitators sitting in the back seat with me confirmed my assumption.) At first, the couple only signed when we were stopped at traffic lights. But as the squabble intensified, they started signing non-stop. Up until then, I realized I was used to drivers always holding the steering wheel in the “10” and “2” positions. I never thought what it would be like to be deaf and try to continue conversing while driving.

The caliber of the concert, which featured hearing and non-hearing musicians, was awesome. The other facilitators contributed to this once-in-a-lifetime experience by explaining how the translators were adapting their signing to fit the messages of the songs. (No worry about anyone being annoyed by our talking.)

Raising funds for Republicans. When a client in Buffalo, NY asked me many years ago to extend my business trip to stay and work on a Saturday, I agreed. They further requested that I join them at the Friday night fundraiser dinner for Jack Kemp, their Republican US Congressional Representative and the famous Buffalo Bills former quarterback. They didn’t see a need to pay for a separate dinner for me when they had an extra ticket with a meal included.

Reluctantly I said “yes.” Not my favorite sport or my preferred political party. Nor did I relish eating banquet food. But it was only one evening – and actually a delightful evening at that. My client hadn’t bothered to tell me that Bill Buckley was the guest speaker. Regardless of political affiliation, Buckley had a well-deserved reputation as a provocative speaker, writer and TV host, and he didn’t disappoint especially in the question and answer session.

The full house – mostly men – directed most of their questions to the hometown football hero, now Congressman. Then one man asked Buckley what role he’d like in the Kemp Administration whenever Kemp became the President of the United States. Without missing a beat, Buckley responded, “Chief Ventriloquist.” Buckley and I were probably the only ones in the ballroom who laughed as the master of ceremonies then quickly thanked everyone for coming and closed down the event.

Mentoring for a military college. When the dean and head of the mentoring program at The Citadel business school asked me to serve as a mentor as part of the school’s formal mentoring program, I said yes.

It was an honor to be invited and serve, especially since my profile is an outlier for the mentor program. Most mentors are retired white males. Many are alums of The Citadel, The Military College of the South, or graduates of other Southern schools.

Even though these differences were immediately obvious to me, I still assumed that the mentoring process would be similar to my past mentoring experiences. Wrong! The focus of the Citadel mentoring was less on careers and education and more on networking and social events, especially those oriented toward sports and religion. Not areas where I could make much of a contribution.

My mentee graduated from the college and the program, and I too have moved on.

My three big lessons learned from these experiences and others are:

  1. Check my assumptions as well as my ego. My assumptions almost always trip me up when I enter situations vastly different from what I’ve previously experienced. Yet, it’s hard for me to remember to challenge my assumptions (Check out How to deal with assumptions and biases in a post-truth world for more on this topic.)  
  1. Social situations trigger some of the best learnings. Even though I gravitate toward formal training, I’ve learned more about other people’s tribes and worlds in informal settings. These opportunities to observe firsthand and close-up and engage in conversations have provided priceless education for learning about others’ cultures.
  1. Getting out of my comfort zone can be fun. These experiences were incredibly enjoyable – even though it’s still scary to remember riding in the backseat of a car weaving through traffic. For a short time, I got an inside look at worlds I had never seen before.

To what extent are you exposed to diverse groups and able to practice “agile identity”? Please share your stories and lessons learned.


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