15 Oct 2015 20:42 IST

Focusing on similarities

Wear the same lens as the person you are interacting with, you will find that the few differences can be tolerated

Though there will always be differences of various kinds in a global workplace, it’s the similarities that we should focus on for a harmonious work life. This realisation dawned on me while waiting for a flight at Frankfurt airport’s Tower Lounge.

All around me I see travellers. There are a few differences among the people around me.

Some differences

Skin tones — white, brown, black, yellow; hair colours — brunette, blond, platinum, jet black, auburn, red and, of course, grey; dress — a man in a baseball cap and tennis shoes with a Polo neck T-shirt is pouring himself an orange juice. A woman in jeans and shirt carrying a backpack is choosing brown bread and cream cheese.

And a set of similarities

A baby cries and the mother is rocking her to sooth her, glancing apologetically at people around her. A family of African kids with braided hair and the sweetest faces have had too much Movenpick ice-cream, are whirling around in glee and then, barf — splat comes out the ice-cream!

Now this could be any place in the world. The scene is not so different from ones that we might encounter in India where we come from; So what’s special?, you may ask…

Just that the scene, so different, yet so familiar, lead to the realisation that though there will always be differences, it’s the similarities that we should focus on for a harmonious work life in the global business village.

Embrace differences

The realisation itself prompted a memory — during one of our cross-cultural workshops, one of our senior participants wanted to know how she could stay stress-free while juggling her personal and professional responsibilities and taking on roles that involved bridging differences in language, culture, time, work ethics, you name it.

The answer lies in another question — Do you focus on the similarities or the differences?

If you focus on the similarities, or, shall we say commonalities, it becomes easy to be objective about differences and see them in the right perspective.

Multiple demands

For the young professionals and those rising in the ranks, particularly women, coping with multiple demands, is a given, but stress needn’t always follow. When your superior dumps yet another project onto your already overloaded plate, you automatically think, “What does he know about the problems I’m facing? He’s different, he doesn’t understand.”

You instinctively shut your mind to cooperation. The trick here is to not think differences, think similarities. Focus of a common goal: material and emotional, and take it from there. The good of the organisation is a good place to start.

Ask yourself what the new project will achieve — a feather in the department’s cap? Won’t that make both you and your boss feel good?

Next, ask yourself how much pressure you can safely take — for this, you need to know yourself pretty well, your strengths, and your weaknesses.

Then get down to practical aspects. Present hard facts to your boss, and find a creative way to include his needs while not sacrificing yours.

Be assertive, show why an idea won’t work, or you think it needs more time. That doesn’t mean raising your voice or being rude. It means being factual and polite and solution-oriented.

Say, for instance, your boss has asked you to help Steven on the Canada team, who’s struggling with some testing work. You can respond with a non-committal ‘I’ll try’ or ‘yes’ and conveniently forget about it. Or, you could say a simple ‘no’ and leave it at that. Both responses would leave everyone with a bad feeling.

You know Steven’s project is high-profile, and success would mean both more revenue and prestige for the company. Completing it well is in everyone’s interest. That’s the commonality to be kept in sight.

So here’s a better way of handling the situation: “I don’t think I can spare the time this week to share Steven’s workload. But if we could have till next Wednesday, I can help him for some time on Monday and Tuesday. I can’t spend too long though, as my own projects X and Y for clients A and B are at a crucial stage, and I also need to make sure I’m home by 6 pm to help with my children’s exam week.”

This way, you’re passing a message that the company is important to you, and that you’re ready to pull your weight as a team player, while at the same time being realistic about your workload and personal commitments.

As a general rule:

1) See the common good of a company goal

2) Give solution-oriented ways to achieve it

3) Don’t take things personally, instead, focus on how similar we all are and find common ground.

At the end of the day, know yourself; wear the same lens as the person you are interacting with. You will find that the few differences can be tolerated as the similarities take precedence.