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Leaders need to remember that people aren’t light switches – although given the choice, I’d prefer to work with light switches.

After all, I’m a Ph.D. Industrial Engineer. I like predictable, understandable systems, and a light switch is perfect. You flip it up; the light goes on. You flip it down; the light goes out. Do that 100 times, and the same thing happens. No individual differences to deal with.

People are different. Just go tell somebody, “Wow, rough day.” Your conversationalist might commiserate and ask you to unburden your soul – or tell you to quit whining and suck it up. And that’s from the same person!

A morning person is full-on 100% at 6:30 a.m. With others, you risk a growl if you engage before they’ve showered and had coffee.

Individual Differences Affect Leadership

This has implications for leading your organization. Promoting empathy, trust and collaboration requires you to understand your employees’ backgrounds, cultures, perspectives and values. In today’s diverse world, no matter what continent (or continents you operate on, your workforce can come from a wide variety of cultures. Tailoring your style and communications to accommodate that diversity can prevent misunderstandings and conflicts, solve problems and create better decisions.

Leaders need to treat people with dignity and respect and understand who they are and what they think. A perfect example comes from a great book I’m reading right now, The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently…and Why, by psychologist Richard E. Nisbett.

Nisbett details how Western philosophy emerged from the ancient Greeks and concentrated on individual agency and autonomy. Eastern philosophy, shaped by Confucian thought, Nisbett writes, “made the individual feel very much a part of a large, complex and generally benign social organism where clear mutual obligations served as a guide to ethical conduct.”

In the West, we are a whole unto ourselves. Eastern agency is more collective – they are portions of something, belonging to a clan, village, family, etc.

While such cultural perspectives have implications for international politics, for us as Insightful Leaders, we simply need to remember that people really are different. Part of strong leadership involves remembering and respecting those differences.

Because not learning how to handle diverse cultures could turn our people off just as sure as flipping the switch down kills the light.