Diversify Your Network

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NaBloPoMo 2018:  What I’m Learning

Are you friends with a plumber?  My friend Dennis is, or was, as of c.1997.  I forget his friend’s name, let’s call him Frank; they knew each other in high school.  Dennis and I were both medical students when I met Frank.  Looking back he must have thought I was a little strange.  I asked what he did for a living, and when he told me he was a plumber I interrogated him, hard.  “What’s that like?  How do you train, is there a school (I was a straight-through biology pre-med who knew next to nothing about trade schools)?  What are your hours like, are there days when you don’t work?  How do you figure out what the problem is?”  I was just so curious—I had never met anyone who did that kind of work, and it was so different from anything I knew.  He didn’t talk to me for long.  We were at Dennis’s birthday party and Frank quickly found other friends to connect with.

I’m so grateful to work in medicine, where I get to meet people from all walks of life every day.  In the exam room I have met coders, lawyers, teachers, construction workers, professional dog walkers, stylists, food critics, financial columnists, hedge fund managers, engineers, HR directors, leadership coaches, musicians, and myriad others…but I can’t remember any plumbers.  I love when I have time to ask, “What’s that like?” and “What do you spend your days doing?”  I always learn something new, and the best days are when I find some parallel between our work lives.  My husband the orthopaedic surgeon remembers patients by their x-rays.  I remember them by their social histories.

The Harvard Business Review sent an article to my inbox today entitled, “How to Diversity Your Professional Network.”  It cites studies that show “people who are connected across heterogeneous groups and who have more-diverse contacts come up with more creative ideas and original solutions.”  Reading it triggered an avalanche of memories and cognitive dot-connecting, hence my story about Frank.

First, I’m reminded of my first coaching call after accepting my new role at work.  Coach Christine asked about my ‘allies,’ the people whose counsel I value and who will hold me up and accountable through the growth process and pains that are leadership.  She pointed out that allies are not always people who agree with me.  They can be my challengers, my opposition, my rivals.  Through them, I am forced to grapple with my own integrity; they serve as the crucible for my values.  This idea helps me stay open to people whom I might otherwise dismiss.  Diversify.

Second, I remembered of The Big Sort, by Bill Bishop.  It’s thick with data and research, but the part that struck me hardest was the idea that our ideology becomes more extreme when we spend time with like-minded people.  I suppose you might think, well yeah, duh.  But when you consider how this affects decision making on the individual, community, and policy levels, it’s a little scary.  In his description of research by Cass Sunstein and colleagues, Conor Friedersdorf writes:

But for all the benefits of agreement, solidarity, and spending time with like-minded people, there is compelling evidence of a big cost: the likeminded make us more confident that we know everything and more set and extreme in our views. And that makes groups of like-minded people more prone to groupthink, more vulnerable to fallacies, and less circumspect and moderate in irreversible decisions they make.

Groupthink.  That reminded me of Originals by Adam Grant, a book I have listened to at least twice now.  As I have thought incessantly about culture and how to nurture a healthy one where I work, Grant’s advice on hiring for contribution rather than fit holds my feet to the fire:

Emphasizing cultural fit leads you to bring in a bunch of people who think in similar ways to your existing employees. There’s evidence that once a company goes public, those that hire on cultural fit actually grow more slowly because they struggle to innovate and change. It’s wiser to follow the example from the design firm IDEO, and hire on cultural contribution. Instead of looking for people who fit the culture, ask what’s missing from your culture, and select people who can bring that to the table.

So what does all this mean?  I have decided to take it as validation of my curiosity and desire to learn as much as I can from a vast array of different people.  Whether I know them socially or professionally, whether our diversity is race, culture, politics, religion, or music preference, there is always something that connects us.  The search and exploration are what make life colorful and fun.

I wonder whom I’ll get to meet tomorrow?

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