Working WITH our different strengths

When I was a student in Oslo in the 1990’s, we always organised ourselves into little study groups. One of the best and most effective I ever experienced was when working towards our master’s examinations. The key to why we worked so well together, was that we actively identified our strengths, and let them work for us as a group. And the material the key was made of, was trust.

One young woman had a brilliant memory and was a sharp reader. She could always identify the relevant facts we needed to know. She would come to our group with systematically and effectively organised information in copied and bound folders. Articles would be neatly summarised and arguments listed carefully. We others would boggle at how well she could sum up the contents of thick and complex textbooks in elegant little matrixes, memorable lists and comprehensive notes. This woman’s problem when it came to her exams, was that she never quite know what to DO with all the information and knowledge she had gathered.

I, however, can’t stand details and have a poor memory for them. I find such reading and memorising very draining. For better and for worse, I’m a fast and enthusiastic reader. Focus and close reading is not my forte. My mind veers off on tangents when I get a new idea from what I read. I lose concentration, and my heart starts hammering if I “click” with what I read. It can almost become to much for me and I run away from my books. New and stimulating questions and intuitive hunches drive the thoughts out and around and I can’t sit still. Shapes and mental images dangle tantalisingly in the front of my inner eye.  I quickly associate what I read with other things I have read. Through working with the group, I realised that I was quite good at understanding the wider implications of a text. I’d come to our sessions and offer glimpses of the big picture. I’d see links between trains of thought, and we would discuss how the texts we were working on tied in to the main questions of the course. I could expand the horizons.

The third young woman would quietly listen to the facts and the summaries, and then join me on the journeys in, out, round and through the issues at hand. Then her time would come. After having thought things through, she would have a niggling feeling that something wasn’t quite right. She would start to probe what we had discussed, and would often start asking some difficult questions. She would take in the facts, enjoy my enthusiasm and often join in developing both – but her mind noticed the holes, the gaps, the problems. Her critical mind and carving questions would in turn help us all see our texts, our discussions and our understanding from a different point of view.

So, why did I tell you about my study group in such detail? It is because I have been thinking a great deal lately about how we see and talk about difference at my own workplace. Sometimes we touch upon the theme, but not often. And we certainly do not use “difference” as an active tool to be happier at work, and to do the job better.

What went on in our little study group is a striking contrast to what I so often do myself, and see others do. In academia, low self esteem (or at least some extent of it), is more common than one might think. I have had (and heard of) countless conversations where academics admit that they feel like frauds and wonder when their bluff will be called. (It’s called “the imposter syndrome”.) Combine this with a very competitive atmosphere, and we all try to be good at the same things which we believe are demanded of us. Difference has no real place or value.

So often we compare ourselves to others, and believe that we fall short of the high standards we see around us and believe we need to live up to. What I think happens, is that we model ourselves on a standard of excellence which is a fictional and impossible standard. We so easily base our ideals on the sum of all the qualities that we see around us – not quite realising or reflecting over the fact that no-one can embody all kinds of strengths. We are different, and we are good at different things. There is nothing wrong with this.

A workplace needs multiple perspectives and a variety of talents and competences to do a job well as a community. Where there are humans there is difference. I feel a little silly saying this, as it is so obvious. However, I am not sure we are good enough at remembering this. We need to be seen and valued for not only our particular expert knowledge, but for what our personalities can contribute with. Instead of comparing ourselves to others who are good at what we no not excel in, and feeling worse for it, we should all help each other to see, value and use our particular talents.

Further, in a society where stress is such a destructive factor, it is worth to remember that doing what you are not good at can be very stressful and tiring. And that working in accordance to your talent can provide energy, flow and joy in the work you perform. At the same time, someone else might be struggling with what is easy for you, while happily working with what you find to be a boring slog.

I don’t know about your working environment. But it would certainly revolutionise my workplace if we to a larger extent than what we currently do could work WITH our strengths, and not AGAINST our weaknesses.

My colleagues might not agree with me, but I suspect I am not alone in thinking that many of us find it hard to open up and dare to acknowledge what we find difficult and are not good at (we are often too proud to do so). I also think that many would find it challenging, but liberating, if we, with heads held high and without fear of put-downs and humiliation, could tell others what we do well and love doing. I think we worry that others might not agree with our self image…

My hunch is, however, that most of us would be surprised and a great deal happier, less stressed and tired and more productive if we only dared trust each other enough to actually talk honestly about how we see our own and each other’s strengths.

A image of “the thinking me” as I described myself above, might to the outsider be that I’m like a seemingly aimless bee flying franticly from flower to flower. The upside of this, of course, is that the process pollinates flowers, and transforms them into seeds and fruit! I’d be happy to see my role in the garden of my work place as a bumble bee, together with all the other organisms that all do their different jobs and contribute in each and every way so that the garden can flourish…

 

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