Making a Mosaic Instead of a Melting Pot

Like many people in the first decade of the 21st century, I was hooked on the TV show LOST. I watched it religiously, talked through theories with friends, and followed the character names to learn more about the real-life figures they were named after (Locke, Rousseau, and Faraday, to name just a few). One of the lingering mysteries in the first few seasons of the show was the identity of a shadowy group of characters labeled “The Others.” The name alone made it clear these characters were dangerous and problematic. One early episode ended with Jin-Soo Kwon (one of the main characters) running out of the woods onto the beach, arms tied behind his back, shouting a warning to Sawyer and Michael as he looked back with terror at where he’d just come from, “Others… Others… OTHERS!!” [Cue dramatic music.]

Othering stems from viewing or treating a person (or group) as intrinsically different from and alien to oneself. But on a personal level, “othering” isn’t usually so obviously dramatic as in LOST. It can be unconscious, everyday, and subtle, even while it’s harmful, degrading, and demeaning. It can come in the form of excluding individuals or groups from conversations or decisions. It can come in the form of holding negative viewpoints of people in different identity groups than your own, and favoring those who hold similar identities to your own.

Organizations and societies that see themselves as a melting pot pride themselves on being made up of people with diverse backgrounds, opinions, and life experiences. This seems like it would help alleviate othering, right? Well, the problem with the melting pot idea is the “melting” part – the expectation that everyone’s unique qualities are simply assimilated into one whole mixture. Either someone assimilates, or they’re excluded.

So what’s the alternative? What can each of us do?

This Week’s Tip:

Work to create a Mosaic, not a Melting Pot – The opposite of an environment of othering is not an environment of conforming; it’s an environment of belonging. While melting pots mix elements together to make something assimilated and consistent, mosaics show the value each unique element brings, by placing them alongside each other to create a vivid and colorful image.

  1. Look for people’s unique contributions – Think about your colleagues and members of your team. What is each person’s unique contribution to your organization? How can you honor and acknowledge their contribution this week?
  2. Share more of yourself – In sharing more of yourself, your own story and your own life experiences, you are creating a space for others to do the same. This in turn grows a space of authenticity in your workplace, highlighting people’s unique diversity in all its facets.
  3. Encourage / start affinity groups – Areas of similarity in color can enhance even the most beautiful mosaics. Encourage (or if you are in a position to do so, start!) affinity groups in your workplace – there is value and support in spending time with others who have some shared experiences, both to build a sense of belonging while honoring what makes each person unique in authentic spaces where people can feel comfortable being themselves.

Try this out this week, and let us know how it goes in our Facebook group! We’d love to hear from you. As always, you can subscribe to our feed here, or sign up for our weekly newsletter to get these articles directly in your inbox.

Published by Ian Jackson

Ian Jackson is the founder of Building Bridges Leadership, which works with individuals, teams, and organizations to create authentic community in the workplace. He also writes children's fiction and teaches creative writing.

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