Addressing our assumptions

Two very different events which I attended at the end of last week in Edinburgh ended with a very similar message about the importance of getting to know the people around us, and I thought this was worth reflecting on for a moment.

The first event was a session on diversity – and, specifically, how we can deal with our unconscious bias, hosted for the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries (IFoA) at the offices of KMPG in the shadow of Edinburgh Castle. People from all fields of actuarial work attended, as did a number of connected guests (I was there because I chair one of the IFoA’s Strategic Boards, their Lifelong Learning Board), and the discussion was robust and at times (to quote the chair of the IFoA’s Diversity Action Group), “appropriately uncomfortable”. For there is, of course, an incredibly vast amount more work that we need to do as individuals and collectively to address the prejudices that we have, and the harm that these can cause; and we should not fall into the trap of feeling self-satisfied because we have a small level of awareness, or of assuming that we have ‘done our bit’ … learning to accept people for who they actually are is a lot harder than it sounds, and we need to work a lot harder on it.

This task is made even harder because, as we heard at the event, research shows that 61% of the workforce regularly engage in ‘covering’, ie covering up or hiding something that is important to their identity … and yet, the more we know about people, the more likely it is that we all understand them, and therefore the more likely it is that we will embrace who they are, and that our lives – and theirs – will be enhanced as a result. There are plenty of very good reasons why people ‘cover’ – through fear of being disadvantaged or ridiculed or hurt – and so therefore the message that emerged was the imperative of practising getting to know people, to give them places and spaces where they feel they can trust enough to talk more openly about themselves, and of accepting them for who they are.

The very same message emerged the next morning when I visited the Edinburgh Steiner School, set in lovely surroundings in South Edinburgh, and gained an in-depth insight from teachers and students about their particularly creative and grounder approach to education. They were calmly and confidently explicit about their intention to nurture a harmonious personality in children with all aspects of their character well-developed, resulting in confident, independent and self-aware young people. What was interesting, and what differed slightly from many other schools which I have visited over the years, it that this sense of self-awareness went far deeper than the individual; it has a purpose, best articulated by one of the current students, who delved deeper – “Steiner has taught me”, he said, “not to make assumptions about people but to find out about them, and stop and appreciate them.”

I have often thought that good schools have a lot to teach other professions about how they grow and manage people, and to hear the same message articulated in two very different contexts, but within less than 24 hours of one another, served to confirm this. More importantly, the message these events mutually reinforced is one that we need to act upon if we are going to have any real chance of drawing out the best of the human race in these challenging global times. So … at the risk of stating the obvious, be aware of the sameness and difference of others, and practise getting to know people (and not just people who seem like everyone else we know).

Above all, let us take responsibility and commit to making a difference. And do it today.

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