Can we get some more humility in the (class)room please?

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Image by John Hain from Pixabay 


Can we get some more humility in the (class)room please? Can you teach and learn diversity?

Jen Blacow

20th May 2021


I work with people with autism. I have been told several times that I must have the patience of a saint or that I am ‘too modest’.

Usually, this comes about when the person who says this observes me dealing with some of the trickier aspects of my job. For example, dealing with misunderstandings between my Autistic boss (Elizabeth), and somebody else.

These misunderstandings are sometimes caused by a big difference in the way Elizabeth thinks and the way the other person thinks, it is certainly rarely wilful conflict on anybody’s part.

What I think, is my ability to be humble, my ‘humility’, which is includes open-mindedness (being able to take on other’s points of view), is a great asset when working with people who are wildly different from me.

If I did not have humility or open-mindedness, I might jump straight to the position of ‘they're wrong, I’m right’ when disagreeing with what somebody has said. Instead, I stop and think, fully acknowledge that I might be in the wrong, and try and see it from the other's point of view before deciding if I was wrong or right.

When I say humility, I do not mean cowardice. Humility is not a sign of weakness; it is really a strength. I think we get this mixed up a lot – somebody who is ‘too proud’ to admit mistakes, for example, is actually trying to protect themselves and their sense of self-worth. 

The ability to be humble and able take on other’s points of view are vital skills when working with people who are very different from us. So, the ‘too modest’ attitude, which is just pride reversed (humility), is potentially foundational to real diversity. I must add that people who make these comments about me being a saint may not know what my colleagues have to put up with working closely with me!

This leads to the issue in question. Why does real diversity within companies seem so difficult to achieve? And can we teach and learn diversity? If so, where do we start? Below I try to answer these three questions, but I would appreciate your (the readers') thoughts on this.


Why does real diversity within companies seem so difficult to achieve?

The challenge to diversity in business, is that people gravitate to those who are like them. Even autistic people. It is biological.

There is a neurological explanation for this: the part of the brain you use to think and reason about yourself is also used to think and reason about others. This leads people (including me) to automatically assume that others think like me despite all evidence to the contrary.

By surrounding yourself with people who think about and experience the world in a similar way to you, this assumption becomes true!

I often hear about people wanting to mix with other ‘like-minded' people, and we tend to make friends with people who have similar interests and views to ourselves.

The problem with trying not to mix with people who are similar to us, is that it takes much more brain effort to engage effectively and build relationships with people who do not think like we do. 

Some people are naturally more inclined to be far more accepting of difference than others.

For example, there are a few people who are fascinated by how different people tick and who are more likely to include others who do not think about or perceive the world in the same way. For example, I always seem to make good friends with people from vastly different cultures.

But in general, it seems truly ‘doing diversity’ is genuinely difficult.

We do not know whether growing up with a wider variety of people helps or if you find it easier if you have lived and worked in another country and thus had to accommodate different ways of doing things.

Do you find it easy to interact and engage with people strikingly different from you? And if so, why do you think it works?

Although Elizabeth and I like to work with people who think differently, I have even noticed this phenomenon between us and the autistic people we support into employment.

One of the autistic women we work with thinks in similar (albeit more extreme) ways that I do. This makes it quite easy for me to empathise with her as I view the world through similar lenses as her.

However, I am not as good at interacting with another woman that we support; her style of thinking and feeling is much more closely related to those of Elizabeth. Hence, they communicate and get on very well. I like everybody we work with equally; it is just that it is less tiring for me to interact with the first woman than the second.

In an employment environment, this links to how people ‘come across’ to one another.

Few autistic people manage to master the skills needed to succeed at an interview. They may display mannerisms that others find off-putting as they are not the same as the interviewers’ or the interviewers’ existing employees.

For example, some autistic people speak in a monotone, seem 'wooden', do not make eye contact, or speak with a strange inflection. It marks people as ‘not like them’.


Can we teach and learn diversity?

So why is it that people are able to understand and accept that buildings need to be wheelchair friendly, even if they are not wheelchair users themselves, but when it comes to somebody’s difference in thinking or differences in learning, it is much harder for us to get our head around?

Of course, it does not help that neurological differences such as autism tend to be ‘hidden’.

Businesses stand to gain from diverse staff teams. For example, a team of three including a strong manager but poor writer, an excellent writer but a poor manager and who needs a bit of help with managing their day to day tasks , and somebody who is extremely good at getting things done but needs a bit of help with writing, could be incredible. So why not aim to be more diverse?

It works for us at Aspiedent CIC, as mentioned above. Elizabeth needs to work with people who can handle the areas that she is not able to and thus enabling her to do what she is good at (and vice versa).

But this requires diversity along with learned tolerance and appreciation of each other.


Where do we start?

This article is trying to acknowledge that helping people get to a place where they can appreciate diversity is not easy.

We need to recognise that this does not come naturally to many people and devise strategies to support people to learn to appreciate diversity.

But how can people learn to accept, appreciate and value difference?

I go back to my original point in this article that is by trying to have more humility and being less proud and sure that what you see/think/feel is what other people do too, you will create a space for yourself to appreciate real diversity.

Being humble is not a bad trait when it comes to working in teams and with other people. It includes open-mindedness and actually shows strength of character. I think it provides a foundation of tolerance for differences, which could then develop into incredibly effective working relationships. Leave the ‘like-minded’ people to your social network.

If I am wrong in my above assumptions, maybe we should do some research as to why some people are naturally better at accepting people who are different, before we come up with ways to teach people how to do it.

Is diversity even skill-based and can we even teach it?

The jury is out on this, but what is clear is that any education should be in conjunction with working with and building relationships with a variety of diverse people. The practical aspect is vital. This is not something you can learn in a classroom!

Does else anyone have any ideas?