Jessica couldn’t understand it, how could it be that equality wasn’t the right answer for her as a leader. She had always been taught that equality was a good thing and when I suggested that it is actually ineffective, she wasn’t buying it.
Jessica had been diligently working with her team to increase her cultural competence and was committed to becoming more effective in her interactions across difference.
She had made great progress in the several months we’d worked together, but this point had her stuck and that made her frustrated.
She’s not alone, many leaders believe that equality should be a foundational value for them and their leadership. If I respond in a certain way to one of my staff, I need to respond the same way to all the rest of my staff. If we say our client-facing departments have to work a strict 9-5 schedule, then our administrative departments have to work that same schedule. It just wouldn’t be fair to do otherwise.
Another common comment I hear from leaders in this regard is, “I know my staff member needs more help in this area, but I don’t want to spend all of that time with him. It just wouldn’t be fair to the others on my team that are high functioning on their own.”
The reality is we are not all equal. We have very different strengths, preferences, work styles and needs. To be our most effective as leaders, we must respond to those differences differently.
One reason we typically hold on to the concept of equality is that we see it as an alternative to favoritism and discrimination. If that were the only alternative, then yes, equality would be a good option. But, there’s a third alternative which is to acknowledge the complexity of differences and respond accordingly.
Responding to everyone differently may seem inconsistent, but in one very important aspect we build consistency and reliability.
Since we all have different needs and perspectives we need to respond to others differently depending on the person and situation. When we’re able to do that, we meet everyone’s needs. That’s where the consistency comes in. Others can count on us to regularly see and respond to the their specific differences and needs.
We can’t do that until we let go of the myth that treating everyone equally should be our ultimate goal.