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The Power of Differences

Most of us have experienced the fear of being different at some point in our lives. I had more than a fleeting awareness that there were a handful of things about me that were different from my peers during grade school. Most notably, I was Caucasian and all my best friends during the period between first and sixth grades were not. I was really bummed that I couldn’t wear hair ties that had huge gumball-like balls on them as my African-American friends did. My fine, brown, slippery hair could not hold those heaving, decorative balls; the ties would just slip out of my hair, quite to my dismay. It seemed unfair and it made me sad.

The Fear of Differences

However, it wasn’t until junior high school that differences – whether they be physical or related to beliefs – actually caused fear in me. The fear of being different, of buying the “wrong” brand of jeans, of liking a boy that no one else liked, or actually enjoying a class that everyone else hated, was profound. There were many brands and beliefs that were easy to conform to. For example: what was the BEST soap opera? General Hospital; what was the BEST lip gloss? Bonny Bell; what was the ONLY tennis shoe that could be worn? Nike. This cult-like thinking was frequently inspired by the awareness of the ridicule that was in store for the outliers. The outliers were the people who dared to buck the norm and be different. The term outlier has been made famous by Malcolm Gladwell’s book with the same name. In this book, Gladwell dis-spells all of our lingering junior high fears while shining a bright light on the value and necessity of outliers. Gladwell not only praises the outliers but he inspires his reader to be an outlier.

The Power of Differences 

In the work I do with corporate teams as a StrengthsFinder coach, I frequently highlight the outliers of the team. Who is the only member of the team who has Woo in their “Top 5 Strengths”? Who has Analytical? Who has Context? When the team members understand how each strength can be productively applied, these outliers become remarkably important.  The Woo can advise the team on the best way to approach a stranger at a networking cocktail party, or better yet, they can go to the event and flex their strength in full view of their adoring colleagues. The differences of the team and the team’s ability to tap into these differences are the team’s “secret sauce.”

Research that supports this idea was completed by the company that is so well-known for creating high performing teams: Google. In Google’s quest to find “the components of a perfect team,” they studied 180 teams and found that there are two factors that most impacted a team’s performance. The first factor is “social sensitivity” or how aware group members were to the importance of social connection. The second factor relates to how well the group communicates. The groups who gave each team member equal time to speak and freedom to share ideas did best. Teams that consistently shared different ideas and resisted the temptation silence the outlier in favor of the majority rule consistently outperformed their peers. Needless to say, Google evaluated a host of other factors, including IQ and personality traits, when trying to decipher the key ingredients of a perfect team, and social sensitivity and idea-sharing were the big winners.

Embracing your differences and the differences of those around you while simultaneously learning how to focus the unique lens through which your team sees the world is your team’s challenge. Good luck!


For more on using your strengths as well as your differences productively see: Unstuck at Last: Using Your Strengths to Get What You Want. To learn more about Malcom Gladwell’s work see: Outliers.


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