By Ben Fuchs
“To see ourselves as others see us is a most salutary gift. Hardly less important is the capacity to see others as they see themselves” – Aldous Huxley
I inherited a condition that makes some colours more difficult to see and yet, to me, the world appears perfectly normal because it is all I’ve ever known. I see colours very well, or so I believed. I would not have known about my condition if others had not pointed it out. A simple test confirmed my colour vision limitations. Without this knowledge I would have gone through life trusting my own perceptions without any idea that some colours appear differently to most people.
Colours are not the only area of my life in which my perception is limited; I also have what I call ‘advantage blindness’. As a tall, middle-aged, educated, able-bodied, heterosexual, white, male, I do not experience many of the disadvantages that others do in their daily lives. This means I have relative advantages. Of course, I don’t feel advantaged most of the time, just as most people don’t feel advantaged to have unimpaired colour vision. I don’t perceive any special treatment as I experience life’s ups and downs; it all just seems perfectly normal. But as with my vision, this assumption turns out to be equally erroneous. As a white man, I’m actually a beneficiary of the world’s longest-running and least acknowledged affirmative action programme.
Advantage blindness means that I’m likely to miss things that others can see. Just as I need help with seeing colours, we all need a little help to recognise our advantages. We tend to see ourselves through our own lived experiences, while others see us through theirs. We need the perspectives of people who can see where we are likely to have blind spots. To paraphrase Marcel Proust, the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new lands but in seeing with new eyes.
So I began seeking feedback, listening to people who are different from me and learning to see what is in plain view but often beyond my awareness: a Muslim colleague pointed out that our work calendar is designed with Sundays and major Christian holidays as non-working days; a black friend asked if I had noticed that police and security people do not automatically look at me with suspicion; my daughter asked if I’d ever moved seats or carriages on public transport because of unwanted sexual attention.
As others pointed out what was obvious to them and often unnoticed by me, I began to see differently, looking beyond personal experiences and seeing myself through their eyes. This is not always a comfortable area of self-inquiry. It is much easier to identify with our own lived experiences and individual struggles than to see what we have not personally experienced. While lived experiences are major parts of us, they are not the whole story. It is important for understanding both ourselves and others to frame our felt experiences in a wider sociocultural context. Like everyone I’ve had my struggles in life, but I’ve also been helped by the invisible (to me) hand of advantage.
Understanding relative advantage is an important part of the conversation about workplace diversity and inclusion. In the UK, most organisations were established long ago, mostly by white men, in accordance with the cultural beliefs they held. This left a legacy of conscious or unconscious bias built into many longstanding assumptions, ways of working and cultural norms. I noticed that senior leaders and people in positions of power often look similar to me. The embedded formal and informal processes and procedures for advancement and influencing are familiar territory to ‘people like us’. Recognising our advantages can help us to see and understand how this legacy of bias sustains the lack of diversity in so many senior roles.
As Stephen Covey noted: “We must look at the lens through which we see the world, as well as the world we see, and that the lens itself shapes how we interpret the world.”
The retired CEO of a large British corporation told me the following story. Attending a course on diversity to “demonstrate sponsorship from senior management”, he’d assumed that being an open-minded man and having lived all over the world in his long career, there was little for him to learn about the topic. The facilitators asked the group what, other than technical and professional skills, conferred relative career advantage in the company. The group agreed on the points as they were listed on a flipchart: race, nationality, gender, education (including which universities), age, sexual orientation, and so on all played their part. The facilitators then lined everyone up, shoulder-to-shoulder and instructed them to take one step forward each time a statement was true about themselves. They went through the list, calling out each potential advantage, with people stepping forward when it applied to them. At the end the CEO was way out in front, having taken a step forward for every point on the list. When I asked him what he made of this, he said: “I’d always thought my success was due to hard work and my innate talents. But I realised that I’d also had every advantage to help me get to the top.” The experience, he reported, made him a humbler person, less convinced that his success was solely a matter of his efforts and abilities.
Talking about differences in perceptions of advantage and disadvantage may be uncomfortable but it can also be transformative in how we see ourselves and others. Our life experiences inevitably limit our perspectives and will therefore always leave us with blind spots. By acknowledging we may have blind spots of advantage, we open the door to hearing how others see us and make it easier for others to tell us about their own experiences of life. The opportunities for learning are all around us.
About the Author
Ben Fuchs is a senior consultant in leadership and organisational development at The King’s Fund, adjunct faculty at Hult Ashridge Business School and associate faculty at NHS Leadership Academy.