The ROI of Leveraging Differences into Opportunities

The ROI of Leveraging Differences into Opportunities

Recently I was asked to speak to participants in a statewide leadership program about generational differences in the workplace. With four generations in the workforce today, it’s only natural that there is a great deal of interest in this topic, especially since some of the differences we read about seem irreconcilable. Interesting stuff! But definitely the wrong focus this group. Why?

First, generational differences are only one type of difference; the workplace is rife with others. Leaders must educate themselves about other kinds of differences as well. Second, and more important, focusing on differences, whatever their source, is unproductive at best, and destructive at worst. Here are eight reasons why this is true:

  1. Differences foster an “us vs. them” mentality, dividing people rather than enabling them to collaborate and work productively.

  2. Differences often encourage distrust, which cripples collaboration and productivity.

  3. Differences generally are based on traits that cannot be changed – e.g., age, race, gender, ethnicity – and that usually are irrelevant to the task at hand.

  4. Focusing on differences doesn’t allow people to see what they have in common or to discover what they can learn from one another.

  5. Making employment-related decisions based on some of these differences is illegal in the U.S. – not to mention that doing so is a bad management practice.

  6. Focusing on differences emphasizes what WON’T or DOESN’T work rather than on what DOES work.

  7. When we seek differences, we find them. Too often, forward momentum then comes to a screeching halt.

  8. Differences often are seen and treated as obstacles to success instead of as enablers of greater outcomes.

Would you want to work in an environment with those characteristics? What if, instead of focusing on differences, leaders kept the spotlight on what people have in common? Here are just a few of the reasons why emphasizing how we are alike makes good business sense:

  1. Changing the question from “How are we different?” to “How can we be successful together?” opens the door to entirely new and actionable answers.

  2. Commonalities allow people to move forward by focusing on opportunities instead of on obstacles.

  3. When we seek opportunities we will find them, which means the sky becomes the limit. While we won’t always reach the stars, we will get much closer to them than if we had set our aspirations much lower.

  4. Differences among people are not going away, so sticking your head in the sand won’t change things.

  5. Commonalities “seasoned” with differences create immense learning opportunities and unleash creativity and innovation.

  6. The emphasis is on what WILL or COULD work.

  7. Emphasizing commonalities opens the door to the best of all worlds, allowing us to move forward by learning, adapting, and growing as individuals and as organizations.

  8. Commonalities are seen as enablers – of action, creativity, innovation, collaboration, and knowledge sharing.

While it’s important to learn about what makes people different so we can understand others’ perspectives, it would be a mistake to dwell on those differences. Consider what a difference it would make in the work environment if leaders emphasized what’s common across human beings – i.e., that people generally want to succeed, to be respected and feel valued, to be part of something bigger than themselves, and to enjoy what they do. Imagine what could happen in YOUR organization if people focused on what unites them rather than on what divides them. In which environment would your employees be most productive, engaged, and committed? The choice is yours. What will it be?

Pat Lynch, Ph.D., is President of Business Alignment Strategies, Inc., a consulting firm that helps clients optimize business results by aligning people, programs, and processes with organizational goals. You may contact Pat or call (562) 985-0333.


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