Making the most of people being different

By 18th May 2020 No Comments

Our research indicates that the most productive and successful organisations recognise that everyone is different. Differences often cause challenges when it comes to people working together. If I don’t see the world the same way as you, and your view challenges my most deeply-held assumptions, then I may well feel threatened. I may be operating in a culture where my very survival depends on people hearing my ideas above everyone else’s. So, I will do everything that I can to get my ideas into the ascendency and override whatever anybody else might think.

A more enlightened approach suggests that out of diversity comes creativity and innovation. Awakenings are flashes of insight that may appear to come from nowhere but are usually triggered by something external. Making the most of this creativity requires valuing group diversity and understanding why people behave in the way that they do.

Getting to the root of personality differences

Personality tests, such as DISC, Myers-Briggs or Insights, are popular ways of understanding how people differ and how that causes issues and misunderstandings. Hofstede et al suggest these tests are popular because they classify people into a type that is easy to understand. I certainly see this when I run these tests with students.

This allegiance to a “type” may relate to a basic human need to belong. Survival comes from being part of a group. Identifying with the typology of a group helps me to feel safe. Especially if it also helps me to understand why I don’t always get along with my colleague across the room. Because I have now discovered that they belong to another group.

Of course what I do with that information can go two ways. I can either use it to acknowledge the difference between us and carry on as normal. Or I can try to see the world from my colleague’s perspective and gain a greater understanding of why they behave the way they do. Which might just help me to accept that.

Introducing astrology

However, I eschew these tests in favour of a tool that predates them, and has influenced them. Yes, I’m talking about astrology. After all, if it was good enough for Carl Jung, who used it with all his patients, then it is good enough for me. . You may scoff at its lack of scientific validity, but I’m past caring. In my experience it is an unnervingly accurate and surprising insightful tool. What I love the most is that it does not put me into a box. Each natal chart is a complex web of relationships between different energy sources (planets) that make up a unique individual.

I recently used it to reflect on a tension that I felt within our own Lysna team. My colleague Marianne was researching what effective online learning looks like and offering us links to various papers and websites. It ruffled my feathers because I was thinking that I already knew what good looked like in terms of online learning. So, why doesn’t she just listen to me?

This tension happened to coincide with my annual astrological consultation, in which I reflected on the nature of Mars. Mars represents how we go after what we want in this world and how we assert ourselves. In his Red Book Jung recommends it as the place to start when working with your natal chart energy. And Mars is all about conflict. It is also an energy that we need to express outwardly. If we don’t then it turns in on us and eats us up from the inside. Just think about how you feel when you get annoyed and can’t let it out. That’s your Mars at work.

Looking at Mars

My natal Mars is in the sign of Leo in the 10th house of my chart. Think bold, brave, courageous lion. That’s my Mars. I call it Aslan. Mars in Leo does everything from the heart, making it passionate and generous, as well as wonderfully creative and expressive. A born leader, as Leo is the sign associated with kings and queens. It demands attention. For a Leo Mars to be in its magic it has to be in the limelight. It has to feel on top of the world. And it has to feel valued and respected for its creative brilliance. Can you see my Mars talking in my description of how I felt in the situation above? And in the 10th house I need to express that creative brilliance in my career, vocation, or social standing.

Marianne, on the other hand, has Mars in Gemini. Think curious, chatty, perpetual student. Gemini thrives on facts and mental stimulation. It loves to seek out new ideas. A Mars in Gemini is your best friend down at the pub quiz (online or not). They are the social butterflies and gossip queens of the zodiac. And they love learning new things. So Marianne’s Mars is in its element when it is uncovering new ideas, learning new theories and bringing them to the group’s attention. It doesn’t matter that the group already has a well tried and tested method of doing something. Gemini’s role is to add something new, to flit from one idea to the next.

Conflict and power

Now we begin to see the source of the irritation. And also how both parties can benefit from each other. The creative brilliance of the Leo Mars can offer something new and exciting for the Gemini. And the Gemini Mars’s ability to produce new ideas can give the Leo inspiration for its own flashes of brilliance. So, we can all be friends.

It is also worth reflecting on the downside of these signs. Mars in Leo can be boastful and arrogant. It can become too reliant on the praise and adoration of others, instead of loving itself for who it is, and accepting its limitations. Gemini can be the proverbial social and intellectual butterfly. Always flitting from one idea to the next, but never settling long enough to develop any thinking of real substance. Geminis can also get buried under lots of irrelevant information, without ever taking the time to sort out what is really of value.

Balancing energies

In the midst of this we have a third Mars. This one belongs to our other colleague Saskia, and is in Libra. Sweet, gracious, justice-seeking Libra. We can always rely on Saskia to try to find the middle ground, or take swift action to resolve any potential conflict. We can also rely on her to seek to balance one’s views against the other’s. Libra always wants each side to get a fair hearing.

At the same time a Libran Mars may not always stand up for what it wants. It may not be as assertive or aggressive as others in expressing its views. Libra may choose to take a slower route to get to the leader’s table. It prefers to work through others and use negotiation and compromise to get what it wants. The danger for a Libran Mars in this competitive, fast-paced world is that it is too slow and indecisive. It doesn’t speak up as quickly as it could do, and then spends hours kicking itself for letting others get in front.

Seeing the actions of the group through just one aspect of our individual natal charts helps me to recognise sources of conflict. I also gain an understanding of what drives each of us to behave in the way that we do. We can then acknowledge and celebrate our differences for the value that they bring. At the same time we gain an appreciation of our individual weaknesses or blind spots.

Looking through the cultural lens

But the roots of conflict are not always just down to personality differences. Cultural and organisational settings also contribute to group team dynamics. In Lysna’s case we have the confluence of three distinct cultures – Dutch, Danish and British. There is no one founding culture, as Lysna is an organisation that was truly born global. Our three cultures may be able to trace their origins back to some common roots – the name Lysna itself is a reflection of that – but we operate today within the boundaries of distinct national identities. Hofstede’s work on cultural dimensions is probably the most comprehensive that we have in terms of understanding these different national dynamics. The graph below shows the scores for Denmark, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom across Hofstede’s six cultural dimensions.

Hofstede’s dimensions

The graph shows how these three countries differ. The United Kingdom is decidedly more masculine, which implies a more directive and aggressive form of leadership is expected here. Denmark is lower in power distance (preferring flat organisations to those that are hierarchically structured), uncertainty avoidance and long-term orientation. This shows up in Marianne’s interest in a) quality of life (a feminine concept) as opposed to work-life balance (a more masculine concept) and b) organisational design concepts like sociocracy and holocracy that consist of flat organisations operating with largely self-autonomous teams (small power distance).

Saskia’s need for clarity and directness is potentially reflected in the Netherlands culture being more avoidant of uncertainty and ambiguity. The way that she gently pushes us along could also be a reflection of the Dutch longer-term orientation with its focus on perseverance and an eye on the long game.

Poles apart?

Hofstede’s notion of dimensions reflects an “either or” approach to understanding culture. A challenge is understanding what each end of the pole represents, and indeed what it looks like inbetween. Are some of these aspects really one dimensional, or is it more complex than that? For example, in their organisational dimensions they have one pole labelled (employee-oriented) and the other (task-oriented). The suggestion here is that an organisation is one or the other. But the Blake-Mouton managerial grid has task-oriented and employee-oriented as two different dimensions. Is it really two dimensions or is it more to do with the relative integration (or not) of two different perspectives?

Here I return to my astrological training. The zodiac is composed of 12 signs, arranged along six different dimensions. Let’s take Aries – Libra as an example. Aries at one end is an assertive, self-centred, energy that makes impulsive decisions An Aries is generally quick to start something (but rarely finishes it), and is adept at treading on other people’s toes. Libra on the other hand seeks balance, harmony and justice in everything that it does. You will never find a Libra rushing a decision. In fact organisations that operate by consensus often struggle to take decisions at all.

Achieving integration

But the key to understanding this axis or dimension is to understand the principle of integration. If we identify too much with the Aries or Libra end we come unstuck. An Arien who really wants to charge forward with a new initiative will get a better result if they do some Libran consultation first. And if a Libran really wants to forge a consensus then at some point they will have to make a decision on behalf of everyone and go for it.

For Saskia’s Mars finding Arien courage and assertiveness combined with the natural Libran diplomacy and sense of justice make for a winning combination. My creatively brilliant Leo Mars needs to see itself as one of an Aquarian group who together can make a difference to humankind. And Marianne’s Gemini Mars needs to find some Sagittarian ideology to hook onto with its ideas. We can also look to integrate the different perspectives from Hofstede’s cultural dimensions to achieve some kind of global consensus. In our Danish/Dutch/British collective we can explore different perspectives on power distance, masculinity, uncertainty avoidance and long-term orientation. This is where celebrating the fact that everyone and every culture is different becomes a joy and a source of strength, rather than an arena for conflict and distrust.


Author Janet Curran

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