Seeking Diverse Perspectives

Whole Systems Leadership is rooted in diversity. A whole systems approach thrives on the respectful inclusion of all voices. From this viewpoint, conflicting opinions do not present a problem but a potential resource that can sharpen thinking and lead to innovative options for action.

The authors of The Power of Collective Wisdom and the Trap of Collective Folly write about welcoming all that is arising. As we recognize different needs, respect differences, and celebrate our common humanity, we are paying attention to: 

“…sharing power with others and treating others as equals. This commitment also encourages us to welcome the pleasant and unpleasant aspects of group life, recognizing that even disruptive obstacles or difficult circumstances can be critical aspects of our passage to wholeness.”

Whole Systems Leadership seeks input from every stakeholder, regardless of “status.” Whole Systems leaders consciously aim to treat all gracefully.

Why Seeking Diverse Perspectives Is Important

A few of the benefits of seeking diverse perspectives:

  • Diversity IS creativity. The more wide ranging the perspectives, the more scope for new ideas.
  • Diverse perspectives can keep groups honest.
  • Diversity prevents groups from falling into the dangers of “group-think,” a mode in which the drive for group consensus jeopardizes independent, critical thought.
  • Diversity reveals more of the whole system. So it increases the likelihood that actions will have desirable effects.
  • By embracing diversity, we “push our differences,” which can make our similarities even more apparent.

Principles & Practices

In order to obtain diverse perspectives, whole systems leaders need to encourage contributions from everyone and give voice to individuals and constituencies not in the room. Keep in mind that those in the room may need to serve as translators for stakeholders who are not present.

Acknowledge the impact of power and privilege on who speaks and who listens in groups. This means attending to the status that is accorded to a person because of her or his position, skin color, ethnicity, economic class background, sexual orientation, gender, religion, ability/disability, health (ill/ healthy), age (too old/ too young), education, expertise, and/or profession.

Practice respect for others. Practicing respect for others does not mean abandoning our own opinions, assumptions, or judgments. It means knowing we have them and discerning when to hold them lightly and when to voice them. This is where deep listening is helpful. 

Appreciate the constructive value of conflict, which is essential to growth:

“Conflict is annoying at the least and lethal at the worst, but…in the world of ideas, conflict provides the necessary abrasive qualities to smooth rough ideas into real gems. And conflict can also assign bad ideas to the trash heap. For sure there is destruction, and in the case of dearly held ideas, no small amount of pain. But the net gain for us as individuals and organizations is unquestionably worth the pain – most especially if we are to achieve high levels…In fact, If you show me an organization without conflict, I will show you a dead one.” ~Harrison Owen, Waverider: Leadership for high Performance in a Self-Organizing World

Finally, be open to breaking the rules and stepping outside the norm. Notice when another’s “deviant” choices may be of benefit to the whole

An Example of Diverse Perspectives

The power of positive deviance and gathering perspectives from all is illustrated in this story from the book, The Power of Collective Wisdom and the Trap of Collective Folly.

In the 1990s, at the invitation of the Vietnamese government, Jerry Sternin, a staff member of Save the Children, was trying to alleviate malnutrition in the country’s villages. Instead of the usual question of how to feed these people, Jerry asked why some children from poor families were healthy.

The norm in most villages was that families reduced the number of meals when they had limited food. The conventional village wisdom was also to avoid certain foods for reasons of status, and to eliminate feedings during bouts of diarrhea. Under these circumstances, families were almost always malnourished.

The healthy families had broken with tradition by feeding small, but consistent portions of food many times a day, even to children with diarrhea. They collected tiny shrimp from the rice paddies, and harvested sweet potato greens, a food that many looked down upon. By deviating from conventional wisdom, these families created alternative behaviors that held the possibility of survival.

Reflection Question

Think of a group you are (or have been) part of that has some diversity. Consider who speaks in the group? Who has the most “air-time”? Is everyone heard? 

If your group is typical, the people who are listened to the most are those with the most status, whether it is status in the organization, or in society in general. People with less status often are not asked for their opinions and are reluctant to speak them without invitation. Status can be influenced by age, education, race, class background, gender, position in a hierarchy, facility with language, and many other cultural, contextual, and personal factors.

In the groups you are part of, how might you enable every participant to contribute fully?



Exercises & Further Reading

Exercise to Deepen Understanding

References and Further Reading

Briskin, A., Erickson, S., Callanan, T., Ott, J. (2009). The Power of Collective Wisdom and the Trap of Collective Folly. Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Mindell, A. (1995). Sitting in the Fire: Large Group Transformation Using Conflict and Diversity. Lao Tse Press.

Owen, H. (2008). Wave Rider: Leadership for High Performance in a Self-Organizing World. Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Positive Deviance