Finding the Common Denominator

Yesterday, my church shared a service with a church group from another denomination as both parties consider the possibility of blending congregations. The specific denominations don’t matter, but in some ways, they could be considered culturally like a synagogue and a mosque breaking bread together, or members of the Occupy movement sharing lunch with some suits from Wall Street.

In other words, our two groups are somewhat dissimilar culturally. For example, the congregation that I belong to usually meets in a rented space at a local grade school. The other congregation meets in a traditional church building, replete with a graveyard and a steeple. My congregation has been meeting together for about 3 years; the other congregation has worshiped at that location and under that name for nearly 200 years. And some of the members from that other congregation look to be founding members, while more than half of my congregation are too young to vote!

Differences. They’re easy to spot. They smack us in the face. We notice differences immediately, and some people jump into compare and contrast mode. At church yesterday, for example, a casual observer might have noticed…

  • Some were white / Some were black…
  • Some were young / Some were old…
  • Some loved the guitar / Some longed for pipe organ…
  • Some wore shorts / Some wore suits…
  • Some drove BMWs / Some drove rusty trucks…
  • Some work in the Research Triangle as scientists / Some work in fast food…

In the office, too, employees tend to create lists of things to compare and contrast with one another:

  • I’m exempt / You’re nonexempt…
  • You’re white collar / I’m blue collar…
  • I’m a profit center / You’re a cost center…
  • You’re in (insert the division name with the most prestige) / I’m in (insert the division name with the least prestige)…
  • I have an office / You have a cubicle…
  • You dine out with customers for lunch/ I bring a lunch or go to the cafeteria…

So what’s the point? There’s an old saying: “Any jackass can kick down a barn, but it takes a good contractor to build one.” Likewise, you can always find differences between two groups of people. And if you want to, you can exploit those differences to create discontent.

Rather than looking for the differences, a strong leader strives to find the common denomination…ur, denominator. A leader looks to build on areas of commonality rather than exploit differences.

At church, for example, I found that we all came together for similar reasons. Forget minor points of church governance. Every church member in both congregations love their children, and they wish to teach their children sound values. Both groups are full of flawed people, but I think most of those gathered together under that roof yesterday wish to do the right things, and they wish to live the best life possible. And I think I can say without fear of contradiction that both sides want the world to be better as a result of having touched the lives of others for the good.

At work, there are things that all employees–front line as well as C-suite–have in common, too, and smart leaders build on these commonalities:

People come to work to contribute. Old school Theory X leaders might disagree, believing that people are lazy and do as little as possible each day. In my experience, no one shows up at work to suck; however, some leaders tend to suck the lives out of their employees, causing employees to care less. Find out what each employee is passionate about doing, and tap into that passion. If you do, you will have no passive employees.

People come to work wishing to belong. Those of us lacking trust funds work for money, but we also try to work in jobs where we fit in, where we are part of a group. That’s why kids join gangs, just like some adults join bowling leagues. Many times, leaders seem more interested in grouping employees by job family, pay grades, and exemption status rather than helping each individual contributor belong to a team, an organization, and a cause. Imagine a football team that shared the play book only with the starting line-up. That team would lose every game. Why? Because every contributor needs to belong to the team, the organization, and the cause: to win! Smart leaders find ways to make employees fit.

People come to work willing to change. When I’ve consulted on corporate change management efforts, I’ve heard more than a few leaders claim, “My employees hate change. It’s like they sabotage every change effort.” Let me challenge that. Employee don’t hate change, but most people do hate being told what is changing after all of the decisions have been made. Employees want a voice in change. They have skin in the game, and they have viewpoints and opinions that may be different from the top brass. Strong leaders tap into the willingness of employees to change by asking questions like “What do you think?” and “How would you suggest we do this?”

Leader, what are you doing to tie your employees together around common elements? Identify the areas that you share, and you’ll give your employees one more reason to be engaged.

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