appreciating differences

Leadership Lessons: Understanding and Appreciating Differences

Appreciating differences is a key step to understanding other individuals we work with. If you feel this is an area in which you need to grow, there are some practical steps you can take.

First, remember the saying, attributed to Native Americans, “To understand a man, you must walk a mile in his moccasins.” While most of us can intellectually think what a situation is like from another person’s perspective, actually understanding and appreciating differences in what they experience on a day-to-day basis is when we really learn the lesson.

This is the wisdom behind the popular television series Undercover Boss. In the show, the president or CEO of a company works in a front-line employee position for a week. In each episode, you see the lights come on in the leader’s eyes—gaining an understanding of the challenges experienced by their employees.

The implication is: if you want to truly understand and appreciate differences, “live with” them. If you are a manager, spend a day shadowing a team member who installs products in people’s homes, or with a floor salesperson trying to meet the needs of your customers while also keeping track of inventory.

After experiencing life with them, ask yourself a few questions:

  • What would life be like if this was my work each day?
  • How would I feel if I were that employee, doing the tasks they do, earning what they earn?
  • How would I feel if I knew the circumstances in my life made it so this is what I will be doing for the next five years of my life?

Not Everyone Feels Appreciated in the Same Way

One of the core concepts of our applying the 5 languages of appreciation to work-based relationships is that not everyone feels appreciated in the same ways. If you want to effectively hit the mark in communicating appreciation with your employees, learning the ways they prefer to be shown appreciation is key.

Initially, the Motivating By Appreciation Inventory focused on identifying the languages of appreciation desired. We then discovered the specific desired actions within that appreciation language vary significantly among individuals as well.

So for example, if an employee’s preferred language is Quality Time, he might value a one-on-one conversation with his boss more than a team lunch. But his officemate might love lunch with the gang! Or an introvert employee might want to go work out with a colleague during lunch. The iterations are many, and the inventory assesses them for you. Also, critically, we now have a version that gives employees the ability to identify those actions they really don’t like, so colleagues and supervisors can avoid creating offense.

If you try to use a one-size-fits-all approach, the results will be discouraging. First, you won’t hit the mark if you give verbal praise to those who believe words are cheap. Secondly, you will waste time, energy and potential money giving gifts, rewards, and bonuses to those for whom a little time or camaraderie is worth more than say, an expensive dinner. And finally, you will probably become irritated that your team members don’t seem to “appreciate all I do for them.”

To truly begin appreciating differences, some foundational principles should be understood and accepted:

You Need Others in Order to Accomplish Your Goals

If not, the goals probably are not large enough. You really do need others to help accomplish the goals you have for the company. So it would be wise to treat others like you need them, versus reminding them how much they need you.

Doing Things Your Way Isn’t Always the Best Way

You are bright, talented and you get things done. But, believe it or not, your way of doing things isn’t the best way for everyone else. Additionally, your way may not be the best way for some tasks to get done. For example, many engineers’ ideas for marketing products aren’t effective.

You Need a Variety of People to Make a Good Team

Differences are good (although they involved challenges—like communicating clearly). You need detailed, analytic conservative fiscal types, energetic, outgoing “let’s tackle the world” salespeople, people who communicate ideas effectively to others, and people who can communicate through pictures, images, colors, and movement. You need dreamers and you need “get it done” implementers. A successful business utilizes the strengths of their multitalented team members.

Remember, we are all different. And our uniqueness brings strength to our workplace just like a forest needs all types trees to survive. Appreciating differences you encounter is important — it’s good for you and your organization!



Paul White

Dr. Paul White is an author, speaker and psychologist, who helps “make work relationships work”. He is the coauthor of The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace with Dr. Gary Chapman and his book, The Vibrant Workplace, will release in April 2017. For more information, go to

  • It’s inevitable for a leader to be dealing with varied personalities among his team. It’s up to him to determine this and try to look for a way to capitalize their strengths and steer them away (as much as possible) from their weaknesses. It sounds draining, dealing with different attitudes that is, but once addressed properly, a leader can see his team succeed in no time.

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