Managing diversity Featured

9:59am EDT July 22, 2002

The most important skill any leader or manager can possess—regardless of the size of the organization—is the ability to continually raise the organization’s level of performance. It’s the key to sustaining long-term growth and prosperity.

One of the greatest challenges, then, will continue to be keeping your people on the same page. People bring a range of perspectives to the table and an effective leader must learn to channel them in a way that complements the organizational mission.

Think of it this way: In every organization, people view problems and opportunities from completely different perspectives. It’s as if they were looking through opposite ends of a telescope. People who look through in the conventional manner see “problems and opportunities” as being very close at hand. They feel a heightened sense of urgency and the need to take immediate action.

Those who look through the opposite end see the same “problems and opportunities” as off in the distance and far less critical. They feel no sense of urgency and no need to make what they consider hasty moves. The result is a sharp difference of opinion which, at times, can cause serious conflicts within the organization.

The degree of success you experience as a leader will be in direct proportion to your ability to identify and resolve conflicts between these contrasting perspectives. The problem is complicated because, in most organizations, 15 to 20 percent of the people will be at each end of the continuum. One group thrives on being involved in the change process and embraces almost any change. They enjoy the prospect of new experiences. At the other end, a group of approximately the same size will resist change with equal vigor. They are uncomfortable with change and prefer the status quo.

About 50 percent of the organization will remain open to change as long as they understand how it will affect their work. If the change is beneficial to the organization and doesn’t increase the complexity of their work, they will generally be supportive. While this group represents the majority, the other two require most of your attention.

It’s important to realize that people don’t arbitrarily line up on opposite sides of an issue. And differences in perspective aren’t rooted in employees’ races, genders or ages. The position they take is based more directly on their unique personal assessment of their experiences or perceptions resulting from their particular upbringing.

The problems occur because of the time and resources wasted while people at each end of the continuum lobby for their point of view. This can take the form of covert and overt acts. People lobbying for the change will begin to spend far too much time in meetings to “sell” their point of view. The other group will resist the change just as aggressively by dragging its feet and retarding the implementation process. In either case, the wasted effort will be costly to any anticipated performance improvement.

As the leader, you need to understand both perspectives so you can make the most effective decision. But once the decision is made, your effort must be directed toward making certain that both parties get behind the implementation process.

As with most organizational problems, an effective vision can help minimize the after-effects. The vision tends to close the gap between perspectives and resolve differences of opinion.

While differences of opinion, to some degree, will always be a part of organizational life, your ability to utilize them in your decision making and resolve them early in the implementation process will go a long way toward improving organizational performance.

William Armstrong, a management consultant for nearly 30 years, is president of Armstrong/Associates, a Pittsburgh-based consulting firm. The second edition of his book, “Catalytic Management: Success by Design” (McGraw-Hill), is available at local book stores. He can be reached at (412) 276-7396 or by e-mail at armassoc@fyi.net.