Earlier this year, a unique gathering was hosted in a New York pub. To gain access, guests were only required to prove that their first name was ‘Ryan.’ Per the participant feedback, the small, shared characteristic fostered immediate trust and a sense of belonging. How could such a small source of semblance lead to a memorable bonding experience?
After investigation, it turns out that psychologists use the term ‘implicit egotism’ to account for this phenomenon: ‘People [unconsciously] gravitate toward people, places, and things that resemble the self.’ If the observation is banal, its implications are not.
Implicit egotism influences a surprisingly wide range of decisions, such as where people choose to live, what they choose to do professionally, or whom they choose to date. For example, people named Florence, Georgia, or Virginia tend to move disproportionately to the state carrying their name. The theory that people engage in careers connected with their name in some way is so well established that it has a name: nominative determinism.
Putting it all together, it should be no surprise that I met my wife in Boston, that she worked with the Boston Consulting Group, and that I joined First Boston 25 years ago. Free will?
The upshot is that it takes little for human beings to latch onto common features, principles, or values to build relationships and enjoy the warmth of a community.
In recent years, diversity in various forms has been promoted for high performance and value creation. The case is compelling, supported by study after study. But, like sustainability in a different context, diversity has been poorly marketed. Much emphasis has been put on the value of differences, while those of similarities have been disregarded. Worse, it too often feels like similarities must be sacrificed to pave the way for diversity.
Diversity and similarities are not incompatible. Moreover, it seems to me that similarities between two individuals, whether a letter, a name, a school, a postcode, a preferred car brand, a TV series, a sports team, a preferred dish, or a favorite holiday destination, can go a long way in enabling diversity. Enhancing trust and collaboration through diversity requires similarity.
Discovering common ground between individuals does not demand special skills, but it does call for intent, which can be stimulated by team-building activities. As demonstrated by the Ryan example, the time and effort to achieve this objective is minimal and is far outweighed by benefits.
Recognizing the value of similarity does not mean diminishing the importance of diversity. An inclusive culture respects both differences and commonalities.