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The University of Southampton
Centre for Higher Education Practice

Appreciating 'difference'

What are key factors to consider when appreciating ‘difference’?

1. Awareness of individual differences

“If a mentor is unaware of their own make-up (of who they are, of their own motivations), then they are unlikely to be capable of fully understanding and helping the person they are mentoring” – (Parsloe & Leedham 2009)

There are many different things that make each person unique and if mentors and mentees are not attuned to their own cultural and diversity issues there are always going to be risks that this can affect the mentoring relationship.

For example, there can be:

  • differences in personality traits
  • values
  • beliefs
  • interests
  • intelligence
  • ability
  • personal motivation
  • learning styles
  • ethnicity/race
  • age
  • sexual orientation
  • religion
  • gender
  • physical and mental disability

It is wise for mentors and mentees, as Adler says [quoted in Parsloe & Leedham 2009]:

“Assume difference until similarity is proven”

The Equality and Diversity Department of the University of Southampton offers a range of resources including online training, action learning sets and departmental briefings to support you appreciating diversity


2. Understanding what ‘culture’ is in the context of diversity in mentoring

“Culture is the collective programming of the mind distinguishing the members of one group or category* of people from another

 * nation, ethnicity, gender, generation, occupation, organisation, department (Hofstede et al 2010)

Hofsted explains that there are ‘national cultures’ and ‘organisational cultures’.

  • national cultures are rooted in values (and belong to anthropology)
  • organisational cultures consist of practices (and belong to sociology)

Unconscious values are acquired early in our lives therefore after the age of ten, basic values don’t change – not even if we migrate to another country

Hofstede has defined a set of cultural dimensions (which are statements about ‘societies’ not ‘individuals’ otherwise they become unwanted stereotypes):

  • power distance
  • individualism versus collectivism
  • masculinity versus femininity
  • uncertainty avoidance
  • long-term versus short-term orientation
  • indulgence versus restraint

3. Understanding how and why people behave as they do

Studies in psychology, psychotherapy, philosophy and neuroscience can all give insight into understanding how and why people behave as they do. At the core will be an individual’s personal philosophy based on their beliefs and values. As we see from Hofstede, our unconscious core values don’t change, but what we can consciously change are our beliefs.

We can also consciously choose to alter perspective eg choosing to focus on strengths rather than weaknesses.

“The keystone of high achievement and happiness is exercising your strengths” – (Seligman 2005)

In ‘positive psychology’, Seligman encourages focus on growing individual strengths. Focusing on weaknesses can demotivate and result in reduced strengths whilst not significantly improving weaknesses.

4. Linking cross-cultural and diversity mentoring

Taking Hofstede’s definition of culture to include gender and ethnicity, we can explicitly link the literature of both cross-cultural and diversity mentoring / coaching.

Passmore [2009] says that there is a danger in using simplistic cross-cultural coaching / mentoring models in that they may lead both inexperienced mentors and mentees to make stereotypical assumptions.


5. Dealing with differences

Therefore this programme encourages appreciation of ‘difference’ and greater development of self-awareness in this area in helping you to deal with ‘differences’ rather than introducing simplistic cross-cultural coaching / mentoring models.

Rosinski [quoted in Passmore 2009] offers the following methods for dealing with cultural differences:

  1. Recognise and accept differences – acknowledge, appreciate and understand that acceptance does not mean agreement or surrender
  2. Adapt to differences – move outside one’s comfort zone, empathise (temporary shift in perspective) and understand that adaptation does not mean adoption or assimilation
  3. Integrate differences – hold different frames of reference in mind, analyse and evaluate situations from various cultural perspectives, and remain grounded in reality; it is essential to avoid becoming dazzled by too many possibilities
  4. Leverage differences – make the most of differences, strive for synergy, proactively look for gems in different cultures, and achieve unity through diversity

Clutterbuck [2004] suggests that using what he terms ‘same-group’ mentors may extend greater understanding, particularly, as if one has never been in a particular situation it is not easy to put yourself in other’s shoes.

He also postulates that a ‘down side’ maybe that same-group mentors may be more likely to reinforce attitudes and behaviours that are not valued by the organisation. Different-group mentors can provide role models for behaviours that are valued. (however, it may not always be possible for the mentee to distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate role models – having a mentor from both groups may provide greater insight).

“What is the mentee’s need? If support is the most critical need, then a same-group mentor may be most appropriate. If being stretched is the goal, then a mentor from a different group is likely to be most effective. In addition, it should be remembered that the mentor is not the only potential source of learning for the mentee – the wider the learning net the mentee can create, the more he or she can receive of both nurture and challenge” – (Clutterbuck 2004)

6. Addressing micro-inequities and unconscious bias in the workplace

The term ‘micro-inequities’ [Rowe 1973 quoted in Passmore 2009] explains many of the subtle differences in how people of a different culture (ie different category or group to one another) are treated in the workplace. These subtle differences can be conscious or unconscious behaviours (unconscious bias) like someone rolling their eyes, sharing information with one person but not another, interrupting a speaker. Micro-inequities are not as much one-time events as they are cumulative, repeated behaviours, which communicate that certain people are valued more than others.

Members of a minority are more like to experience micro-inequities or unconscious bias – women, in particular, encounter micro-inequities.

The only way to create change, given that micro-inequities exist, is for the mentee to take ownership of that change and relinquish control over changing others.

The mentee’s experiences may be real but it is important that this does not lead to getting stuck in feeling victimised by another’s behaviour.

Shift from blaming to ‘claiming’ and take the powerful step of being accountable for your own actions – it is not somebody else’s fault. “How can I take responsibility for making this change myself?”

[Passmore 2009] below makes clear where change can be created even if the source of the problem is external to the individual.

Things I can’t control

  • Whether I am recognised for my contributions
  • Whether my male colleagues are given ‘passes’, when female leaders must work harder for the same success
  • Whether someone respects me
  • Other people’s behaviours that seem unfair or unjust
  • Emotions I feel in the moment

Things I can control

  • My commitment to develop strong influencing skills, contribute and perform at my best
  • How well I develop and apply the leadership competencies I know are the key to success in my organisation
  • How I perform; whether I deliver on my agreements
  • How I respond to unfair behaviours, focusing on my own effectiveness and influence
  • How I act (or withhold action) on my emotions

It has been found that it can be useful for anyone encountering micro-inequities to try to reframe these micro-inequities as ‘molehills’ rather than ‘mountains’.

Cornish and Jones [2012] discuss how unconscious bias works from a psychological perspective and how our biases are created and maintained by our neurology, our socialisation, our experience and the media.

7. Other factors to be taken into consideration with male / female working relationships

Clutterbuck (2004) highlights potential problems with male / female mentoring. Assumptions should not be made that any of these are inevitable, but if they are explicitly introduced as part of the mentor / mentee training then potential pitfalls may be avoided.

In particular, sexual tensions may inhibit the mentoring relationship and sexual gossip and innuendo can kill a mentoring relationship before it gets going.

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