Perhaps the best words of advice I received in the business world was to hire people who are not like me. The point was, when you want to build a team, you don’t need — or want — a lot of people who think and act the same way; you need contrasting views and opinions and personalities if you are to get a better view of where you are going, where you should be going and what you should do about it. Choosing diversity is not always easy; we generally like to be around people who are like us, who think like we do, like the same music, like the same sports teams, live in the same neighborhoods. It’s comfortable surrounding ourselves with people like us, but it generally is not very effective and you get locked into a group-think that, at the end of the day, is boring as well.
Perhaps the second best words of advice I received in business was that our strengths are also our weaknesses. First we were taught, through our teachers, performance evaluations and ex-girlfriends, that we had strengths (which were good) and that we had weaknesses (which were bad). Then, we were taught we had strengths that we should continue to focus on building and we could not do anything about our weaknesses because it cost us more to change then we typically are willing to pay. However, because we rarely focus on doing things that we are weak at doing, our weaknesses rarely get us into real trouble. What gets us into real trouble is relying too much on our strengths even when the situation demands something different. If you’re strong at analysis, when times are tough you’ll bury yourself into data when action might be called for; if you enjoy building relationships, you might find yourself holding onto friendships with business partners, even when that ship has sailed and your business partner really wants something else. Behavioral economists call these strengths, “anchors”, which help keep you from drifting aimlessly, but might also keep you from reaching your destination.
These anchors describe for you, the known world, and you act based on that knowledge. Unfortunately, what you know is generally not as important as what you don’t know. In an interview with the Washington Post, Nobel prize winning economist, Daniel Kahneman stated, “We have no way of thinking properly about what we don’t know. What we do is give weight to what we know and then we add a margin of uncertainty. You act on what you think will happen. In fact, in most situations what you don’t know is so overwhelmingly more important than what you do know that you have no business acting on what you know.” It’s not the unknown that we should be afraid of; what we should be afraid of is in believing too much in what we do know.
If Dr. Kahneman is correct, how do you ever get out of bed and do anything? One key, I believe, is to go back to Best Words of Advice #1 and surround yourself with people who don’t think like you do. They’ll keep you honest (and humble) and, if you do a good job of listening to each other, in most situations, you’ll end up making a better decision.
They say that a man is wise when he realizes that he doesn’t know everything. To act with that wisdom means that we continually question what we know and, more importantly, question what we don’t know. To do that, we need different views and different voices. Make sure you surround yourself with those different views, different voices and complimentary strengths. Diversity is not just politically correct; it is necessary.