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Ask a fish about the water he swims in, and he’ll look at you blankly.  What’s the saline content?  The Ph? The temperature? How clean is it?  Do fish of different species enjoy it equally?  Are you in a river, the sea or a glass tank?  It isn’t just the size the fish’s brain.  The fish is so IN the water that he can’t see it or describe it.  It’s all he or she knows; the fish doesn’t know there is anything else; how can one describe something when it is all there is?

Humans have bigger brains.  They think more.  And they live in air, not water.  I once worked in a high rise office building in Denver; when I looked out over the city and the mountains, I saw wonderful views.  Most days, I thought it was a beautiful, clear day.  But later I lived west of the city and had to drive back and forth on I-70.  I could look down at Denver and see, not only the cityscape, but also the air.  I could see if it was a clear day, a brown cloud day, a grey cloud day or a hazy day.  When I was in it, I couldn’t see it.  When I was outside of it, I could see it better.  Denver’s air is to us humans as water is to fish.

Think of your organizational (and social) culture like the water we “fish” swim in.  Can you describe it?  Are you aware of whether you feel you belong and feel naturally comfortable in it?  Do you know how many others feel naturally comfortable in it?  If you’re not sure, you may need to step outside the water.

In our U.S. culture, it may be more likely that members of some groups fit the “water” because they are most like those with the greatest influence.  Often those in influence tend to be white, of European descent, heterosexual and male. There are many white Anglo-Saxon males in American business who have an experience that enables them to empathize with the experience of being “different.” There are also some who have always “fit in” and have never felt different.  Always in the majority or always matching those with the most power, they may simply have no experience that enables them to empathize with people who “fit” less.   They may assume that the “water” just is the way it is and not know that it is less comfortable for some.

I once observed this phenomenon when, as part of the senior team of my company, I participated in “diversity training.”  At a session led by an impressive African American woman, I could see that some of us were responding to the workshop and others seemed less involved.  Those who seemed less involved were the white males.  I thought (and boldly said out loud) that it may be difficult for white males to relate to what the trainer was presenting–because they don’t generally experience being “different” from those who set the norms.  Even though I was a white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant, my gender was a point of difference.  While I could not claim to understand fully what it was like to be of a minority race, I had a clue what it was like to be “different” from those “at the top.”  The trainer had more of an opening with me, the other women, non-whites and gays and lesbians that she had with most of the white men.

If I “fit” the cultural profile of those with most influence in your organization, it may be natural for me to think the way things are is just “normal”—to assume that the culture in which I am comfortable is comfortable for most everyone. I may think the water is just fine. This is why the white males in the diversity training had a harder time relating to the point of the training. Never having been “different” on any of the major categories that define the larger social culture, and the organization’s culture, they had a harder time relating to those who were different in some way.

My first challenge in working with leaders who want to lower turnover and increase engagement is to have them really see the “water” their teams “swim” in and notice whether “different species” are enjoying it equally.