Why you shouldn't treat everyone in your team the same

Treating everyone the same isn't treating everyone equally. Photo from Everyday Quotes - Pinterest

Treating everyone the same isn't treating everyone equally. Photo from Everyday Quotes - Pinterest

When I was a younger man and going through a postgraduate qualification to become a PE teacher, I learned an incredibly valuable lesson that has lived with me. We were learning about teaching basketball skills and there was a range of drills/exercises that we were setting up (with adults role playing the students). Along the way, there was a question of how in a class of 20+ students we were supposed to do something that was engaging for everyone. My lecturer's answer was as profound as it was simple:

"Treating everyone the same is different to treating everyone equally."

In an instant, I felt years of my assumptions being challenged - and exposed. I have a strong sense of justice (see my Batman posts!) and had always believed that it was important to treat everyone the same in order to treat them equally. It had never occurred to me that treating people differently could somehow still be treating people equally.

If we return to the basketball example, it's possible that some people had never played basketball and so the help that they needed was fundamental - how to dribble with their dominant hand and do simple passing. Others may be very experienced with basketball and be looking at very complex skills closer to professional athletes like crossover dribbles or passing without looking at where they want to throw the ball. Most people probably sit somewhere along that continuum.

So, as a teacher, how do I do something that is the same AND of equal value for everyone? The answer is that I probably can't. I can, however, do a range of things that are different AND equal. Equality is more important than sameness. In fact, when we meet people where they are at, we do something far more engaging and empowering. We say to them, "I see you and I'd like to help you." We don't say, "We're doing this if you like it or not." Here are some examples of how a teacher might do this in a basketball lesson:

  • Pair or group people of similar skill level and offer activities that meet the need of each pair

  • Offer a range of options - starting at basic to professional and let people select which activity they would like to practice

  • Pair a skilled player with a novice - this helps both parties (we learn a lot when we teach) and often builds connections between people within the group

I'm sure that there are plenty more options that you can think of for your team's context. When we lead teams, we might think about equality around:

  • Flexibility - does everyone value the same time off? Some people may prefer a late start while others prefer an early finish - assuming that both isn't an option!

  • Reward - does everyone value the same reward? Good luck offering your vegan team member a meat tray!

  • Learning - does everyone have the same learning needs? I'm not talking about learning styles - don't get me started on that myth!

There are almost infinite categories that we could explore. The main point is that sometimes we can strive for sameness and deliver inequality. It's far better for all of us when we are able to treat everyone in a way that serves both them and the team.

Check out this video of a teacher who has an individual greeting for each student!

Here are some questions for you to consider this week:

  1. Do you hold any assumptions about treating people the same and equal?

  2. What is one thing that could promote equality in your team?