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The following is an excerpt from the new book, "The Vibrant Workplace," by workplace psychologist Dr. Paul White. In this excerpt, "Leadership Lessons: Appreciating Differences," Dr. White explains how business leaders and managers can be more effective by learning how to understand and appreciate the various points of view and life experiences of employees. Dr. White also offers a step-by-step guide for managers who want to do a better job of appreciating differences.

The Vibrant WorkplaceUnderstanding our differences is a key step to see and take into consideration other individuals’ life history and experience as we work together. If you feel this is an area in which you need to (or want to) grow, there are some practical steps you can take. First, remember the saying, attributed to Native Americans, “To understand a man, you must walk a mile in his moccasins.” While most of us can intellectually try to think what a situation is like from another person’s perspective, actually experiencing what they experience on a day-to-day basis is when we really learn the lesson. This is actually the wisdom behind the popular television series Undercover Boss, where the president or CEO of a company goes and works in a front-line employee position for a week. Time and time again, you see the lights come on in the leader’s eyes—gaining a true understanding of the challenges experienced by his or her employees.

The implication is: if you want to truly understand what another person is going through, go “live with” them. If you are a manager, spend a day shadowing one of your team members who installs products in people’s homes, or with the floor salesperson who is trying to meet the needs of your customers while also keeping track of inventory.

After experiencing life with them, be sure and ask yourself a few questions:

  • What would life be like if this was my work day in and day out?
  • How would I feel if I were that employee, doing the tasks they do, earning what they earn, and then receiving the messages they get from management?
  • How would I feel if I knew the circumstances in my life made it so that this is what I’m going to be doing for the next five years of my life, with no chance of advancement?

Not everyone feels appreciated in the same way
One of the core concepts of our applying the five languages of appreciation to work-based relationships is that not everyone feels appreciated in the same ways. So if you want to effectively hit the mark in communicating appreciation to those with whom you work, learning the ways they prefer to be shown appreciation is key.

Initially, the Motivating By Appreciation Inventory focused on identifying the languages of appreciation desired. We then discovered that the specific desired actions within that appreciation language vary significantly from individual to individual, as well. So for example, if an employee’s preferred language is Quality Time, he might value a one-on-one conversation with his boss more than a team lunch. But his officemate in the next cubicle might love lunch with the gang! Or our introvert employee might want to go work out with a colleague during lunch but isn’t interested in hanging out with a direct report. The iterations are many, and the inventory assesses them for you. Also, critically, we now have a version that gives employees the ability to identify those actions they really don’t like, so colleagues and supervisors can avoid creating offense.

If you try to use the one-size-fits-all approach, the results will be discouraging. First, you won’t hit the mark if you give verbal praise to those who believe words are cheap. Secondly, you will waste a lot of time, energy and potential money giving gifts, rewards, and bonuses to those for whom a little time or camaraderie is worth more than the expensive dinner you treated them to. And finally, you will probably become irritated that your team members don’t seem to “appreciate all I do for them.”

To truly begin to practice this leadership skill, some foundational principles need to be understood and accepted:

1. You need others in order to accomplish the goals you are pursuing (if not, the goals probably are not large enough). You really do need others to help accomplish the goals you have for the company. So it would be wise to start treating others like you need them, versus reminding them how much they need you.    

2. Doing things your way isn’t always the best way. You are bright, talented, and you get things done. But, believe it or not, your way of doing things isn’t the best way for everyone else (although your way probably is the best way for you). Additionally, your way may not be the best way for some tasks to get done (for example, many engineers’ ideas for marketing products aren’t that effective).

3. You need people who are different than you to make a good team. Differences are good (although they involved challenges—like communicating clearly). You need detailed, analytic conservative fiscal types. You need energetic, outgoing “let’s tackle the world” salespeople. You need people who communicate ideas effectively to others—both orally and in writing. You need people who can communicate through pictures, images, colors, and movement. You need dreamers and you need “get it done” implementers. A successful business utilizes the strengths of their multitalented team members.                                                    

Remember, we are all different. And how we are each unique brings strength to our workplace just like a forest needs all types of shrubs, ground cover and trees to survive the challenges it will experience over time. Celebrate the differences you encounter—they are good for you and your organization!

Author Bio: Dr. Paul White is an author, speaker and psychologist, who helps “make work relationships work”. He is the coauthor of The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace with Dr. Gary Chapman and his book, The Vibrant Workplace, will release in April 2017. For more information, go to www.appreciationatwork.com.

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