Boxes? Categories. Archetypes. Divisions. Prototypes. Standards. Models. Separating things and people into us vs. them has been a survival instinct since man 1st discovered he wasn’t alone on the planet. That is like me–walks upright, eats the same food, uses the same tools. This is not like me–walks on all 4’s, very very large teeth, sharp claws and, hmmm, he seems to think I’m food. We are alike. We live in the same village, we eat the same food, we hunt together, raise our young together, share songs and stories of our history. We are not like them. They make different sounds, they carry different weapons, they hunt differently, eat differently, raise their young differently. Do we share the resources we have access to with these different beings? Do they want the resources we have claimed? Do we want the resources they have claimed?
The feeling of TEAM works to our advantage. An effective team will allow actions that exceed the capability of the individuals on the team. Our team can protect our village from a rampaging predator! Our team can take down a mammoth! Our team can win the College World Series! Team is a very powerful concept. It also ends up having bad consequences that are not recognized as a side effect of team formation. Why do bullies bully? They may not belong to the ideal team, but they are aware that they can enforce the ideals of the team by pointing out differences to those who do not belong to the ideal team…with great prejudice. The ideal team consists of people who meet the ideal image of what a male and female of the species should look like. The natural leaders are there. The athletic people are there. The people of a privileged status are on this ideal team. The bullies may be part of this team, or are short by 1 or 2 aspects. They are a sub team that supports the ideal team. The bullied become a dysfunctional team. Those that are not wealthy enough, not strong enough, not athletic enough, not attractive enough, and who have a follower mentality are among these. People who speak with an accent, or are from the incorrect country of origin, or who have different beliefs may be on the ideal team in another setting, but will find themselves bullied when they are out of their element. This idea of us vs. them is a powerful instinct.
But we are more enlightened now. We’ve made laws that insist that there is no ideal team, and that all are individuals. We do not have a class system or a caste system here. Except we do. We do not discriminate against people who do not meet the standards for the ideal team. Except we do. We do not label an entire culture by the actions of some of its members. Except we do. This separation between us and them is hardwired into our survival instincts.
Now we add psychology to the mix. It’s a fascinating study of people’s emotions, decision making skills, learning skills and how the mental processes work. However, it is not based on physical evidence. There doesn’t appear to be a correlation between what and how people experience things and what their responses are. It’s unpredictable. One person is badly abused as a child and grows up to be an abuser, another goes through the same abuse and grows up to be a model parent. One grows up in a neighborhood that would never be referred to as affluent and becomes a drug dealer, another lives in the same environment and grows up to be an internationally acclaimed actor/musician. Some people can read owner’s manuals without the aid of pictures or videos. Some can hear a piece of music once and reproduce it accurately. Some can see objects in three dimensions in their head and sculpt the likeness. Some can watch a dancer or a martial artist and immediately replicate the moves. But scientists cannot connect any of those perceptions and talents to specific brain activity. They cannot reproduce this behavior by stimulating certain areas of the brain. And yet…
What has happened is that new boxes/archetypes/characterizations have been created to explain these differences. I have a friend who’s been plagued by learning disabilities all his life. He is not stupid, he is not slow, he is not humorless. What is his disability? He doesn’t know. If he doesn’t learn something or understand something, it’s because of his learning disability. Understand that I have been a teacher for 50 years. I have taught brain damaged students, dyslexic students, retarded students, geniuses, and a whole lot of average students. When they come into my studio, they’re just students. Each one of them has a unique learning style. Each of them has some challenges they have to overcome to master the instrument or academic subject I’m teaching them. They all learn. Here’s the thing I know: decades ago, if you did something stupid, you got placed in a corner with a dunce cap. If you didn’t turn in your homework, you got an F. If you were rambunctious in class, you were separated and a note would go home to your parents. In a one-room school, the kids all interacted and no one was left behind. Eventually you learned all the stuff you needed to know to graduate. Now, however, if the kid doesn’t pay attention, it’s ok! We have a syndrome for that! Take these pills. If the kid doesn’t learn well by listening to lectures, he has a learning disability. Learning disability is newspeak (remember Brave New World) for stupid. Special education is newspeak for stupid and retarded. News flash–RETARDED IS A NICE WORD FOR SLOW. And we all know that every child works at the same speed, so if there are fast students they are put into a box labeled gifted, and if there are slow students, they’re labeled learning disabled. But there’s no cure for learning disabled is there. There are pills for behaviorally disabled, medications, special processes. How many syndromes and disorders do we need? How many psychotropic drugs can we make and sell? What is NORMAL?
I submit that there is no “normal.” Because we have advanced in our technology to define even the most minute differences between people, the large categories such as “smart” and “dumb” have been splintered into a myriad of definitions. We have advanced to the point that if you don’t learn exactly like the ideal student, you have some disability. There is no person that could fill the “normal student” shoes. If this “normal” student can absorb everything that the teacher says in a lecture, he may not be able to adequately interpret the lecture if it is just presented in writing. If this “normal” student can absorb everything in the written materials provided for the class, he may not be able to transfer his knowledge and build upon it to expand his understanding of basic concepts and develop another application. For instance, a person could understand the theory behind fixed wing aircraft and aerodynamics, and be unable to apply that to making a paper airplane. What if this “normal” student could replicate a complex set of actions allowing him to do deeper analysis into the human genome, but couldn’t write the paper to get credit for it? Every single one of these “normal” students would be considered learning disabled.
How does this affect leadership? As a leader, you interact with a variety of different people that have differing approaches to problems, differing methods of gleaning information, differing people skills. Does that mean that those that do not do or see or appreciate the things you do, see, or appreciate are somehow substandard? Of course not. I believe, therefore, that we should stop categorizing people and defining their roles for them. Kids have already figured it out. Learning disabled means you never have to take responsibility to learn something new because you absolutely cannot. You do not have the “correct” tools to understand the materials. This is patently untrue! I also believe that behavior is not preordained by one’s circumstances. Behaviorally disabled means you never have to take responsibility for your actions because you cannot. It is incurable. It’s worse than addiction because though we believe addiction is a disease and can be managed, behavioral disability is not manageable except by drugs. This is also patently untrue! Our basic problem is that we, as a society, take the blame for how people act. “It is not their fault. They have a disability and we must cure it or manage it for them.” We also assume that there is a normal, not a normal range. The difference is subtle, but makes a huge change in our perceptions. Normal range is actually quite wide. But a normal person–the embodiment of normal, does not exist. Now if we take this view that everyone learns and sees and experiences and acts differently to the same stimulus, we have opened up a huge number of possibilities! We can use this to our advantage. It is like expanding a flat, 2 dimensional picture into 4 dimensions! It is like taking a black and white photo that we can only see, to an experience in color, and temperature, and sound, and smell, and touch, and motion, with a time impression! How? If you have enough people on your team, each will experience the stimulus in a different way and will impact the way the whole group sees it.
Take soap for instance. You use soap for several different purposes. It cleans skin and hair, it cleans dishes, it cleans floors, it cleans toilets, it cleans clothes. Wouldn’t one soap that could be used for all these purposes be sufficient? Soap cleans. What is essential for soap? Shape? Color? Scent? Delivery method–liquid, powder, undiluted, in a packet, in a decorative squirt bottle? No, none of that improves the soap. It cleans or it doesn’t. Now go down the aisle in the box store or the supermarket and see all the different types of soap. We all develop some favorites–best laundry detergent, best dishwasher detergent, my favorite scented shampoo, etc. Isn’t there a normal combination? Of course not. Now when you look at your team, see the differences as advantages. When you look at your class, see the differences as advantages. When you see your club, your set of officers, your middle management team, your coaches, or your captains, see the differences as advantages. See the diversity of all your members and followers as assets. As much as you’d like to divide your people into groups…Schedule type, Tech Type, Action Type, Relationship type, or go find the Meyers-Briggs type, you can utilize your analysis to assign tasks or to complete your team, but don’t use this division as a measuring tool.
Most especially, do not label the learning characteristics of your people, whether they are your team members, your club members or your children. Remember that it is not so important HOW they learn but THAT they learn. And people can be taught how to behave, but they have a choice in which behaviors seem to be the least effort. They are responsible for their choices. You aren’t.