Jennifer Newman

Workplace psychologist Jennifer Newman. (Jennifer Newman )

Workplaces can be very diverse, and when it comes to navigating that diversity people need to go beyond simply tolerating differences, says workplace psychologist Jennifer Newman.

Newman sat down with The Early Edition host Rick Cluff to talk about how staff can take an interest in others as individuals, and how to handle tricky circumstances such as when some feel uncomfortable because others are speaking a language they don't understand during lunches and breaks.

Rick Cluff: We hear a lot about tolerating our differences as the best way to behave with one another at work. Is this helpful?

Jennifer Newman: Tolerance is having a fair, permissive attitude towards others when they differ from us. It's kind of a live-and-let-live attitude based on the golden rule — we want others to treat us fairly and we want our differences tolerated, so we extend that to others.

However, most workers want to be more than tolerated. So, workers really need to go beyond just tolerating each other if they are to work effectively together. For example, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau who actively went and created a 50-50 split between men and women on his cabinet.

What do you mean when you say we have to go beyond tolerance, what else can workers do?

The next step is to focus on accepting one another.  Acceptance refers to recognizing what is, without trying to change it, struggle against it, or withdraw from it. When it comes to working effectively in a diverse workplace, workers can go beyond saying: "I can live with my teammates' differences", but rather "I can accept them, and our differences are okay".

Being accepted feels a lot more inclusive. But to really work well together, workers have to move beyond tolerance and acceptance.

What would that look like moving beyond tolerance and acceptance?

You have to have tolerance to be accepting — they build on each other. But if workers are going to form cohesive teams and work together effectively they have to go beyond tolerance and acceptance and combine these with understanding. That's because, it's possible to tolerate and accept your colleague without understanding her. Sure, you'll get along and work alongside each other, but there is a cost to not being understood.

For example there was a newcomer to Canada who felt welcomed by his employer and the team. But, still he felt reserved about being his complete self. He felt accepted but he noticed it was hard to really be who he truly was, while everyone else seemed to be themselves — they were jumping in with opinions, talked a bit about their personal lives and joked around. But when he tried, colleagues seemed to be confused about how to react.

So, if workers try to understand each other, they are more likely to be effective and satisfied. However, understanding requires workers to be interested each other as individuals.

Is that what's missing when we talk about tolerating and accepting each other's differences in a diverse workforce?

Understanding can sometimes get lost when we focus on tolerating or accepting our differences. If workers focus on understanding each other, they will find the best ways to work together. Getting to know each other means being interested in what's going on for your co-worker.

For example:

  • Asking after each other's families is good.
  • If you eat lunch together and notice a food you haven't seen before, ask about what it is.
  • If your colleague went back home recently, ask them about their visit.
  • If you are a newcomer, talk to your colleague about customs or their way of doing things.
  • If there are big age differences at your workplace, ask your colleagues how they like to get things done.

Another example is there was a new recruit who was in her early twenties, and she stopped a colleague in her mid-thirties to ask how she preferred to correspond in tight timeline situations. Her colleague answered: "Call me on my cell, if you run into any problems". This was important as the new recruit tended to default to text with urgent requests.

But what about when our differences collide, how do workers handle those occasions?

A great example of that is language. For example there was a human resources professional who was at her wits end. She had complaints about what language to use in the lunchroom. Everyone was sitting around using their first language during lunch and at breaks. Someone wanted to institute an English only rule. It was the language everyone had in common so it seemed to make sense. However, if you look at this from the viewpoint of understanding others, a different solution may be found.

First, it's really great, on a break to use your first language. It gives your brain a break. But, colleagues who are also on break, may not understand what's being said, they may feel left out, or at worst wonder if they are being talked about.

The best thing to do is to switch to the language everyone understands at that moment, whatever that is, even if your non-speaker colleague isn't sitting with your group. Workers can be aware of who is in their environment and make an effort to include them. That way language doesn't have to be a barrier, it's a way to signal "We're in this together."

Understanding is a way to respect each other.

This interview has been edited and condensed

With files from CBC's The Early Edition

To hear the full interview listen to the audio labelled: Workplace psychologist Jennifer Newman says embracing diversity in the workplace means going beyond tolerating differences