Six Sigma and more: Transcending difference

David SchwinnDavid Schwinn reflects this month on building a sense of community in organizations by understanding and transcending the differences that may divide people.

If we are to achieve a richer culture, rich in contrasting values, we must recognize the whole gamut of human potentialities, and so weave a less arbitrary social fabric, one in which each diverse human gift will find a fitting place.

Margaret Mead

This month’s blog comes from the convergence of two recent events. The first involved going to a small cafe in downtown Detroit to experience live-electronic music by our great nephew, known as Nunca Duerma. Not knowing what live-electronic music is, going to an area that might be considered blighted in Detroit, sitting through a sound check that we thought might render us deaf, and having the chairs and tables all around us be moved to create a dance floor that seemed larger than the cafe itself felt different, strange…and a little threatening. Interestingly enough, once the show began, we really enjoyed ourselves and learned a lot about this unusual (to us) form of entertainment.

The second event was the finish of the “missing chapter” to our new book, Transformative Workplace (Transformations Press, Unlimited, 2015). The chapter captures the interview of Imre Lövey, who tragically passed away just months after our visit with him in Budapest. Imre was an internationally known leader in the field of organizational development. The primary theme of the interview was around the importance of transcending difference. Imre’s career in organizational development began while Hungary was still under Soviet Union’s control.

Both events involved difference and both stories took some courage. For us, the courage to engage in a new experience was, in retrospect, pretty minimal, but in Imre’s situation, the courage required was based on a real political history of physical violence. His early work was intertwined with the initial break in the Iron Curtain, the physical and ideological barrier erected between the West and the Soviet Union after World War II.

As we spoke, Imre explained:

We are fragmented, he said, and it is very, very natural. It is almost genetically imprinted in our tribal attitude. In order to survive, we have to stick together. That’s what we have learned from hundreds of thousands of years. We tend to identify with the group we are part of. It can be a financial department, it can be the United States of America, it can be the soccer club of Barcelona and all of its fans, or it can be females and males, or the gypsies or whatever. It is us against the rest. This is in-group/out-group thinking.

It is very important to accept it; it’s not bad, this is the way we are. That doesn’t mean we can’t do something about it once we understand how we as humans work. We have to create cross-functional groups, so that this identity is established in a new group setting. We need to bring people together from different parts of the organization, give them a task, give them something so they can go through their own developmental phases. Then they identify not with only one group, but with two or three or several. This releases their old paradigm and the next time they look at another group, they think, ‘Maybe they are just as good as we are.’

“Leaders need to look at their employees as human beings and as communities,” Imre continued, and to help their organizations work against “this tribal programming.” People need to experience a sense of belonging, so that they “feel part of something. When people feel that they belong, then they invest. They invest from themselves, and this investment will bring return to everybody in the organization and also for the customer or clients and maybe even the shareholders.” Imre went on to qualify his remarks by saying that integrating identities can also have a down side. “Taken to its extreme, it can threaten my identity. Where are my roots? I can float too easily. We may fix one problem and create something else.”

Research and experience show that organizations that create an inclusive culture where all people can develop a shared sense of belonging and community will be rewarded with employees who are loyal contributors to their vision and mission, and steady upholders of shared meaning and values. They can expect that their people will be continually growing, accepting new challenges, demonstrating creativity, sharing innovative ideas, and exhibiting flexibility in a variety of work arrangements. They will find that they experience lower turnover rates and absenteeism, and an ability to hire and retain the talent they require. Their image and reputation will be enhanced, allowing them to attract new customers and investors. Most importantly, they will have helped to develop people who can bring their capacity for transcending differences to their families, their communities and societies.

In order to accomplish all this, Peter Norlin, former Executive Director of the OD

Network, recently suggested to my wife, Carole, and me that transcending difference is no easy task and it requires at least three commitments:

  1. a rigorous commitment by leaders to model, coach, and reinforce the necessary values and behaviors;
  2. a personal commitment to elevate our own level of consciousness to embrace others as ourselves;
  3. the organization’s commitment to creating principles, structures, and processes that make a sense of belonging and community possible.

As Imre Lövey and Manohar Nadkarni so beautifully wrote, “Belongingness is the soil in which people blossom and grow.” (How Healthy Is Your Organization? The Leader’s Guide to Curing Corporate Diseases and Promoting Joyful Cultures. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2007.)

I believe transcending difference is a courageous act that is likely to help our Six Sigma efforts, our organizations, our communities, the world, and ourselves. As always, I treasure your comments and questions.