Value the Differences

I see a negative synergy in many organizations as people struggle in teams to deal with differences and maintain positive, productive relationships. Often the negative dynamics in their relationships kill creative potential. They wonder how to turn those relationships around to get more creative, innovative thinking and positive results. The key is to stop cloning others and to start valuing differences.

The natural tendency in entrepreneuring and intrapreneuring is to clone others, instead of creating a complementary team. Cloning produces negative energy, because it inhibits the full expression of a person’s talents and gifts. On the other hand, building a complementary team—which has one goal but many different roles, perceptions, methods, and approaches—enables the full expression of talents and releases positive energy.

Why is the tendency to clone so prevalent and so strong?

Because cloning gives leaders a false sense of security. When you have people thinking like you, doing like you, speaking like you, referring to you, quoting you, dressing like you, and grooming like you, then you feel that you’re being validated as a leader. You feel that you have value, because other people value being like you. But they’re telling you what you want to hear, not what you need to know. So, you may get some artificial harmony, conformity, or uniformity, but you won’t have much creativity, synergy, unity, or security. Cloning comes from insecurity and from being centered on public opinion.

IBM, among many other North American companies, had to learn this lesson the hard way. Once the king of cloning, IBM now is a champion of diversity. Leaders and other employees at IBM are learning to value differences.

Economic necessity is teaching that same principle to many companies. In fact, I see that diversity and synergy are being championed by most major organizations today. When I read their reports or listen to their leaders, I hear them all talking about teams, empowerment, diversity, synergy, quality. These principles are vital to bottom line performance in the global marketplace. More senior executives are realizing that nothing kills success more than being incapacitated by limited data and narrow thinking.

They see that sameness is not oneness, uniformity is not unity. The new ideal is the complementary team where unity is achieved by people who have different talents—who have one vision and purpose but many roles, perceptions, capacities, and duties. My experience suggests that unless you have a transcendent purpose and shared value system, differences become negative and counterproductive—not positive and synergistic—simply because there isn’t unity on the fundamentals. If there’s unity on fundamentals, then you can tolerate differences in other areas and still have positive synergy.

In his brilliant book, A Guide For the Perplexed, Eric Schumacher writes of convergent and divergent problems. A convergent problem is like a problem in a car. If you have a mechanical problem, it’s just a matter of checking this and that until your diagnostic process converges on the problem. With a divergent problem, however, the more you study it the farther apart the views get, the greater the differences become, and the higher likelihood for failure—unless there is a transcendent purpose.

He gives the illustration of the French motto: equality and liberty. If you push the concept of equality and liberty far enough, you’ll find that they are divergent values. They go in opposite directions. But the higher value is fraternity. So if love or fraternity is your transcendent value, you can use your liberty to achieve equality. Mercy and justice are not in conflict if you have love.

Schumacher says that when you encounter a divergent problem, you need to find some higher purpose that you can attach to the problem. You can then get back to positive synergy.

For example, my wife and I met with our builder and architect some time ago to discuss a matter. I asked the builder, “What do you think about that idea of the architect?” And he said, “I think that’s fine.” I said, “How do you feel about it?” He said, “Well, if he feels that’s okay, I feel fine about it.” I said, “Now, how do you really feel about it?” And he said, “Well, I feel pretty good, I guess.” I said, “Well, then we don’t need you any more.” He said, “What do you mean?” I said, “When two agree, one’s unnecessary. There’s no synergy. Until you honestly express your ideas, we won’t get your best thinking or achieve team synergy.”

Since that discussion, the positive energy in our meetings has increased dramatically, because we fully express ourselves. Different opinions are viewed positively. We all have the same purpose; although we see things differently, we each bring something unique to the project. That difference becomes a strength because it enables us to go for synergistic alternatives that are better than our original ideas.

Security Breeds Synergy

Whether you’re building a house, designing a product, providing a service, or improving a marriage, the principle of valuing differences to achieve synergy applies.

If we buy into this principle, why don’t we practice it more often? The primary reason we often fail to achieve synergy in our projects and relationships is because our personal security is threatened by differences. Our security is fragile if it is based on the need to be right.

At the root of the ability to fully value and celebrate difference in others is having your own personal security tied to a shared vision, common purpose, and integrity based on principles. If your security lies there, you can improvise, adapt, flow, change, and easily admit, “I was wrong,” because you’re not taking the whole thing personally. You can then be very positive, and supportive.

My son Joshua tried out for the quarterback position on the freshman football team at his high school. He talked to me one day about how his confidence was a product of his performance. I told him, “Your performance will be a product of your confidence if your confidence does not come from football but from living correct principles—being very caring about your team members, working as a team, improving daily, being very honest with the coaches, and learning to value differences to achieve positive energy and synergy on the team.”

I wasn’t sure if he was even listening, but in a game a week later, the boy who was the starting quarterback was being criticized by the coaches for his performance in the first half. In the locker room at halftime, the boy broke down. He didn’t even want to play the second half.

My son later told me: “I didn’t really want to come into the game. He’s my close friend, and I care about him. But then, I also care about the team and doing the best I can do.”

So he talked with his friend and coaches about creating a situation where his friend’s strengths—speed, power, and size—could be complemented by his own strengths—agility and passing ability. He did this because he cared so much about his friend as a person, and wanted to build him.

We all need to base our identity, security, and confidence on something other than our performance, position, or public opinion. If we share a common vision and mission, we can build our identity on the transcendent purpose that unites us, as well as on correct principles. We need both purpose and principles, vision and values. If our mission statement is only about principles, we may be good, but good for what? And if we have vision without principles or values, we may rise to the top, but we will take many people down with us when the inevitable crash comes.

Albert E. Gray spent his life trying to find what he called the common denominator of success. And finally, he came to this: “The successful person has the habit of doing things failures don’t like to do. They don’t like doing them either, necessarily, but their dislike is subordinated by the strength of their purpose.”

Every leader and entrepreneur needs to have an inspiring vision and transcendent purpose—and not to get hung up on their perceptions or their methods, but to value differences as people meet together to come up with a way of doing things.

Recently, when I left a board meeting in our own company, Covey Leadership Center, I realized the thing that unites us is a common purpose. They all expressed their opinions, and there was strong disagreement on methods proposed to accomplish the aims. But I detected no negative energy in that meeting.

As we come to a transcending purpose, common vision, and shared mission in our relationships, then we can afford to have many differences, and they’ll become strengths. We actually want them, because if we don’t have them, then we’ll always be limited by incomplete data and partial perspective. You’ll only have your view, your history, your value system—and this will be the lens through which you see everything in your corporation or marriage.

The total quality movement taught us to get involvement, listen to our people, listen to our customers, and set up partnerships. All those processes basically involve diversity, appreciating differences.

Fruits of Positive Synergy

The wonderful fruits of synergy include improved products, services, and relationships. You see that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. You have true creative cooperation that produces things that no one could ever have achieved before. You give a small group a heroic goal that looks totally impossible from every point of view, and have them go to work on it, and they’ll come up with new ways of thinking about it.

Another benefit of synergy is that it bonds people. Any time you and I have a creative experience, where we produce something together that was not there before, that memory is bonding.

Have you ever had a creative experience with your kids? What impact did that have on your relationship? When I have my one-on-one “dates” with my kids, I have an open agenda. They write the agenda, and we do something that is unique and fun; in fact, my daughter Colleen has several journals full of her daddy-daughter experiences.

Another great benefit of synergy is that it builds the immune system in the culture. We become immune to problems or differences, because the culture already has its own T cells and white cells. It knows it can fight divisiveness because it’s fought it and won before.

A Final Caution

A wise father once counseled his son about seeking a marriage partner, “You want as many similarities as you can find, because there will be enough differences anyway.” There is some truth to that. I see companies going out of their way to seek differences, to champion the diversity cause, but then have a real problem with divisiveness because they don’t have the basic commonalities.

The most important commonalities deal with your philosophy, your purpose, your value system, and your perception—not with race, religion, gender, or nationality. For instance, if you and your spouse didn’t have the same basic purpose with your kids, the different ways you approach child-rearing issues could tear your marriage apart. Even with a common vision and mission, you’ll still have your struggles communicating on those issues, but eventually—if you’re both focused on the higher value—you’ll come up with a third alternative, or else one will say, “Well, it’s not that important to me; let’s do it your way.”

Many companies struggle as they adopt diversity programs because the leaders, while self-aware enough to know that they need to be more diverse, make careless hiring and promotion decisions. If you go for diversity for the sake of diversity, you may get tokenism, or worse—a total bombshell where people aren’t prepared for key assignments. That which we desire most earnestly, we believe most easily. And if we desire diversity so earnestly that we grab it whenever and wherever we find it, we’ll have more divisiveness than synergy.

My point here is that there are elastic limits to diversity. There needs to be real commonality on core issues, not just difference for difference’s sake. There must be commonality on purpose and values—and hopefully those values are based on principles. The ultimate source of security comes from integrity toward these higher purposes and principles.

Written by:
Dr. Stephen R. Covey – is an internationally respected leadership authority, family expert, teacher, organizational consultant, and co-chairman of Franklin Covey Co. He is also the author of several acclaimed books, including The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

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