Valuing Differences

It's all about synergy!

Synergy - the total is greater than the sum of the parts.

The realities of the competitive pressures of a global marketplace suggest that only those organizations that create and maintain true synergy among its parts and among its employees can hope to be successful.

Hypothesis: The total will not be greater than the sum of the parts if all the parts are the same!

Imagine a group of employees who are all:

  • white males,
  • married with children,
  • between 35 and 50 years old,
  • MBA degree holders from the same university.
What is the total of the parts?

Suggestion: The kind of synergy required for sustained competitiveness demands that there be differences among the parts of the organization and its employees.

Every organization with whom I have worked has voiced loudly and often, "we value differences!" Too often, however, the demonstrated behavior says "why aren't you more like me?" When confronted with this perception of their behavior, invariably one notes a very puzzled look or confusion.

Valuing differences is not a reality based upon what we say! Obviously everyone must avoid making statements and/using terms that are offensive to people who are different that we are, However, truly valuing differences is a reality based upon what we do - the ways in which we demonstrate that we respect the individual and really do appreciate the fact that people within the organization are NOT all alike! (See Attitudes or Behaviors )

If we are to behave in ways that demonstrate that we do, if fact, honor and value differences we must learn to:

  • Learn about and optimize the unique contributions inherent in each individual; and,
  • Remove obstacles to inclusion and people feeling truly valued.

In other words, begin by accepting a suggested "fact of life": I am not better or more valuable - as a human being - than any other person. No other person is better or more valuable - as a human being - than I am! We are just different - thankfully!

One of the biggest barriers to truly valuing differences, in my experience, is the existence and influence of stereotypes.

Too often when we say, "we value differences" when what we really mean is "why aren't you just like me?" Such a statement is based upon the stereotype one holds of another.

Perhaps to the best example of "stereotyping" occurs in the movie, Pretty Woman. In one scene, Julia Roberts enters a very fancy women's wear boutique on Rodeo Drive in Hollywood dressed in a mini-skirt, knee boots and a very revealing blouse. The very pretentious female sales associate quickly suggests the "we don't have anything that would suit you in our shop" based upon her judgement of the "type of person" Julia Roberts represents.

Two days later, after Julia Roberts, after beginning a relationship with her benefactor, re-enters the same shop "dressed to the nines" in attire stereotypical of this elite shop's clientele. The sales associates quickly flock to her side to show her all the outfits (very expensive ones to say they least) from which Julia Roberts might choose.,br />
Julia Roberts retorts, "Weren't you the same person who refused to wait on me two days ago? You work on commission don't you? Big mistake - BIG mistake!"

Another example of the cost of stereotyping is contained in a legend surrounding Jimmy Ling (LTV founder). According to the legend, Mr. Ling walked into a Neiman-Marcus store in Dallas dressed in his faded jeans, muddy boots, washed out Western shirt and floppy ten-gallon hat. When he approached the fine jewelry counter, the sales person suggested that he go to Sears to get "the kind of jewelry you can afford."

As the story goes, Mr. Ling went directly to the offices of Neiman-Marcus; called his comptroller and commanded that he purchase that store regardless of cost. The day after the transaction was finalized, Mr. Ling called the offending sales associate into, now his office, and fired her after admonishing the entire sales staff of the 'cost' of such stereotyping.

Mr. Ling then sold the store back to Neiman-Marcus after he had made his point!

All of us have stereotypes of people who we believe are different that we are - skin color, dress, stature, gender, accents, etc. If we are to truly value differences we must become aware of the stereotypes we hold of others, examine them and discard the behaviors we demonstrate due to our stereotypes of others.

Some examples:

What stereotypes might one hold of this group of people?

Or, these people?

Armed with an understanding and appreciation of stereotypes, we might find it helpful to genuinely get to know those who appear differently that we do. I have been amazed that, when we get past the apparent differences and our stereotypes, we find how very much we have in common!

An exercise that many have found helpful.

A typical group of people who work together is usually composed of very diverse people. Get this group together and lead a discussion:
  • What are the advantages and disadvantages of a group composed entirely of left-handed (or right-handed) people?
  • What are the advantages and disadvantages of a group composed entirely of very tall (or very short) people?
  • What are the advantages and disadvantages of a group composed entirely of people with highly technical (or non-technical) education and experience?
  • What are the advantages and disadvantages of a group composed entirely of females (or males)?
  • What are the advantages and disadvantages of a group composed entirely of Caucasians (or Afro-Americans or Hispanic-Americans)?
  • What do the people within this group have in common? What are the positive and negative effects of this commonality?
  • What are the differences among the people within this group? What are the positive and negative effects of these differences?
  • What have we learned from this discussion about similarities and differences? What about the level of synergy in each of the seven questions asked above?
  • What specific behaviors can we demonstrate that will maximize the advantages of differences and minimize the disadvantages?

From this discussion, participants can develop a set of expected behaviors which, when demonstrated in day-to-day action, will become a major step in truly valuing differences. However, it is not enough!

EMERGING HYPOTHESIS: In my work with a very large and diverse group of organizations, I have found that one of the underlying and major causes of "non-valuing of differences" is the inability of people to effectively deal with the inevitable conflict that arises in all human interactions. Too often, as they become more and more frustrated, angry and impatient, people involved in conflict will attribute the cause of the conflict to that which is different about the person with whom they are in conflict.

"That's just the way all men, women, engineers, __________(fill in the blank) are! "In other words, "we are in conflict because you are ________(different than me)"; rather than, "we are in conflict because of ( fill in the blank ) behaviors!"

Case study

In a large Midwestern manufacturing, 750+ employee, organization comprised of the most diverse workforce I have ever seen, faced chronic problems with "diversity" issues. The management and union leaders had done an excellent job in creating and implementing the best policies, procedures and practices I have ever seen in any organization. Yet, 'not valuing differences' issues continued to plague the organization.

The general manager was very frustrated with the situation and wanted to do something about whatever was causing the 'problem'. In a very bold and, in my experience, unprecedented move, he asked all employees to 'get ahead' on their respective work schedules by four hours so that he could 'take them to the movies'.

The employees responded within four weeks. A nearby movie theatre was rented for each of the shifts so that ALL employees (salaried and hourly alike) could view REMEMBER THE TITANS. The company paid the wages and bought tickets, a soft drink and bag of popcorn for each employee.

Employees went to the movie in their natural work groups. Upon completion of the movie, each work group was taken through the questions cited above plus questions tied to significant events in the movie.

The result - a remarkable change has taken place throughout the entire organization.

  • Issues of "diversity" and "not valuing differences" have dramatically reduced to the point that they are no longer an issue.
  • Conflict is being addressed when it occurs - and is a much smaller and easier issue to resolve.
  • Employees are dealing with 'issues' by giving and receiving feedback in a constructive and, usually, positive manner.
  • A detailed protocol has been put in place for those few situations that occur that are not satisfactorily resolved by other action.