6 min read

Brian Herbert, son of science fiction author Frank Herbert and a prolific author of science fiction himself, once said: “The capacity to learn is a gift; the ability to learn is a skill; the willingness to learn is a choice.” This is not only true for individuals but also for organizations. Organizations must learn and they must learn to learn, if they are to survive in a changing world.

For this to occur, there has to be an environment conducive to learning. In my last post, I talked about one component of that environment: psychological safety. Today I want to talk about an equally important component: appreciation of differences.

There is a growing body of evidence supporting the idea that organizations learn better when they appreciate differences. So, let’s unpack this idea and see where it leads us.

What does it mean to appreciate differences?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines appreciation as recognizing the full worth of something and also as being grateful for something. The word “appreciate” comes from a Latin word meaning to “set the price of something, to appraise.”
If we appreciate something we value it. And we show that we value something by…

  • Paying attention when people talk about it. When you hear someone talking about a topic you value, your ears perk up. You become focused. You strain to hear more clearly.
  • Asking questions about it. We want to know more.
  • Storing what you learn for later use.
  • Telling others about it. We become evangelists of what we value.
  • Being willing to make sacrifices to gain the thing we value.

Why is it so hard to appreciate differences?

Appreciating differences is not normal human behavior. It is a learned skill. There are at least two reasons for this.

First, we perceive differences as threats.

If you have ever been walking in the woods and come across a deer, you have witnessed that sudden perking of the ears, lifting of the head, and tenseness of the deer’s body that means, “something’s different and I don’t like it.” They haven’t seen you yet—otherwise they would already have darted into the thickets—but they sense a presence. They have heard something out of the ordinary and this means danger.

This is how people normally respond to differences they encounter in people. We are inclined to see differences as threats. Millenniums of human development from pre-historic times have taught humans to recognize when something is not “normal.” This danger signaling has enabled us to survive.

Threats don’t have to be physical. If an idea is different, we also perceive it as a threat.

Second, our brains are lazy.

We don’t like being made to think. It’s uncomfortable. It’s taxing on our physical bodies. Blood pressure rises and eyes dilate when we are required to think hard. The more central the idea is to our worldview, the more intense is our reaction when we are presented with an alternative.

The brain loves coherence. When ideas nicely interconnect and “make sense,” the brain is a happy camper. But when something is introduced that breaks that equilibrium, we experience what psychologists call “cognitive dissonance.” Cognitive dissonance is the tension we feel when we consider ideas that are inconsistent either with our ideas or with our way of life. We worked all our lives to create a coherent mental model of the universe and we don’t like it when new ideas threaten that model.

But, how does appreciating differences contribute to learning?

To understand that, we have to understand there are two kinds or levels of learning (There may be more, but for simplicity, I’ll keep it at two).

System 1 learning is learning by addition. This kind of learning does not challenge our current mental constructions. It adds more information, information consistent with our model and with our life behavior. We cruise right through system 1 learning. We feel at peace, in harmony with the universe while learning at this level.

System 2 learning goes much deeper. It goes so deep it hurts. It challenges the assumptions that support the edifice of our current mental models. We find this uncomfortable, taxing, anciety producing.

Such learning, however, is necessary. It is necessary because no one perceives the universe as it truly is in all its complexities. Only God. Unless we open ourselves to consider alternative ideas, we risk closing ourselves off from aspects of reality that currently have no place in our mental systems.
For organizations, this can be catastrophic. The world external to the organization is changing. Organizations that don’t learn at level 2 become fossilized into patterns of routine based on a world that no longer exists, the world of yesterday.

So, how do we learn to appreciate differences?

As I already mentioned, appreciation of differences is not normal behavior. However, we can learn it. Here are three ways we can learn to appreciate differences.

  • Build a personal relationship with those who are different. As long as we categorize people into groups and assume that all individuals within that group think alike, we will never know what the individual thinks. We will never understand the basis of their ideas. That’s why understanding begins with relationship.It may turn out that they have some dangerous ideas. Such ideas exist. But at least, from within the context of relationship, we can understand how they came to possess such ideas.
  • Learn empathy. Jesus taught his disciples: “Do unto others what you would have them do unto you.” This is a way of saying that we need to have empathy for others. Before we can do to others what we would have them to do us, we must put ourselves in their situation. Then, viewing the world from that situation, we can ask ourselves, “How would I like others to treat me?”
  • Step out of an evaluation mode and into a description mode. Evaluation is the normal mode triggered by the newness of the situation. But we can switch into a descriptive mode in which we set aside our faculties of judgment and seek only to understand. In the descriptive mode, we seek to learn “what is” and leave for another day the question of “what ought to be.”

One of the most frightening and yet exhilarating things that can happen to anyone is to open ourselves up to system 2 learning. Such learning gives birth to new adventures, new careers, new inventions, and renewed purpose.


Photo by LubosHouska. Photo available at Pixabay under CC0 license. Image modified for size and space.

Portrait of Dr. Waddell

Dr. Greg Waddell is passionate about helping church leaders equip their people for ministry. He believes there is wild potential in every believer that begs to be released. He can help you develop and implement practical strategies for increasing the ministry capacity of your congregation.