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Making Differences Work: A People-Centric Approach to Business Performance

Making Differences Work: A People-Centric Approach to Business Performance

Paul Sarvadi and Eli Jones

Paul Sarvadi and Eli Jones holding copies of their book, Making Differences Work

Whoever said, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” didn’t know what they were talking about. Our words contain enormous power—power to heal and power to harm.

We believe there’s a need to use words that propel us toward unity. Words like diversity, equity, and inclusion are good, but they fall short in describing the change we want to see to get results.

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We’re more convinced than ever that commonality, equality, and cohesion are the better terms to energize your company. We believe that commonality, equality, and cohesion (CEC) effectively raises the bar for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). Having said that, we both want to make sure you know that we are not down on or in any way against the original unifying goals of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We are contrasting the terms to purposefully clarify the potential outcomes of using these terms in the workplace. Which terms are likely to be better to cause the behavioral changes we want to see and drive the performance we want to achieve?

DEI has served well as a good starting place. But we’re interested in raising the bar. And the way we get started is by choosing better terminology.

Pushing Past Differences

We believe that diversity is a good thing. It’s good to have diversity, to have variety, to have an assortment. But isn’t there more to it than that? Is it just about having the right folks at the table?

You see, diversity, by definition, is only focused on the static condition of being different. The broader the diversity, the more important and necessary it is to introduce commonality.

Paul has a great example of finding commonality. “I was at an event with a friend who sat me down next to another friend of his, an Asian gentleman. It would’ve been easy for me to politely greet him, then simply engage in small talk about the weather, assuming we had so many differences that any kind of shared experiences would be improbable.

“What I ignored were my initial assumptions, and I leaned in to strike up a conversation. I quickly learned he was from Singapore. The more we talked, the more we realized how much we had in common, how much overlap there was in our life experiences. I started a business in 1986; he started a business in 1986. He had gone through some of the very same experiences in his company that I had gone through in mine. By the time the event was over, we had discovered a long list of shared experiences.

“Out of this happenstance meeting came real friendship, a friendship that continues to this day. And it’s all because we saw our differences, our diversity, as just the starting point. It was our commonalities that brought us together so quickly.”

That’s what we want to harness by embracing commonality instead of settling for diversity.

Equity/Equality

Equity and equality share the Latin root aequus, meaning “even,” “fair,” or “equal.” Both are powerful and emotional. The key to the best results is realizing equity is best applied to individuals, and equality is best applied to groups.

Eli has a story that demonstrates what we mean. “To me, the term equity is tied to the notion of tokenism. As a person of color, I don’t want the opportunity if the only reason I was chosen was to be a token or to meet some kind of quota.

“I remember a time at Texas A&M when we were working on a program to increase the diversity of our faculty members. For more than twenty-five years I’ve been very involved in the ‘PhD Project.’ A&M’s Mays Business School is a sponsor. This initiative encourages people of color to pursue PhDs and become faculty, and we mentor those people through doctoral programs and faculty ranks at universities across the country. In our talks as senior leaders of the university, one of our team members suggested setting aside some finances specifically for the purpose of recruiting and hiring professors of color.

“On the surface, that seemed like the exact right thing to do. But there have been times in my career when I’ve been told there was a separate position just for me because I belong to a diverse group, and I’ve turned those opportunities down cold. I wanted no part of a position I obtained that way. I wanted to be hired, not as a token, but because I’ve earned the right to be considered.”

The equity argument is powerful because it’s so emotional. But it’s full of unintended consequences, tokenism being one. Being equitable is good, but only when it’s applied individually.

In the workplace, coaching individual employees and helping them apply their strengths and address their specific weaknesses is the pathway to lifting the entire boat. Creating a specific development plan to help each person be the best they can be is equitable. This is the best application of equity in the workplace.

The problem is, when equity is the all-encompassing goal, everybody in the group is treated as if they all have the same deficiencies. This application of equity in a workplace many times introduces considerable frustration and becomes a drain of energy.

Equality must be the overarching goal, evaluating everyone in the group based on the very same criteria. This way the cream, your very best people, will always rise to the top.

Equity as properly applied ought to be used when helping every individual be the best they can be. Equity is one side of the coin; equality is the other. However, equality is a better and stronger term to drive desired treatment and rewards for individuals and groups.

From Inclusion to Cohesion

Paul has a great story that demonstrates why inclusion isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be.

“I’m the seventh child out of nine kids in my family, and I was quite a bit younger than my brothers. Our family lived in a small country town, and the neighborhood kids would come over to our house to play ball. The two oldest, who were team captains, would take turns picking the kids they wanted on their team until there was only one kid left—and that was usually me, the runt kid brother. For some reason, no one wanted me on their team! I’d go running into the house looking for justice, screaming, ‘Mom!’ She’d grab me, and we’d march right back out there to the backyard. ‘Boys,’ she’d yell. ‘Get over here! You must include Paul.’ Finally, they’d concede, but after Mom went back in the house, they’d always tell me, ‘Get out there in the right field! And you don’t get to bat!’

“The result was, they included me in the game, but inclusion was just the minimum they could do. They included me, but I was far from being appreciated. Far from being connected. Far from feeling any sense of belonging.”

Creating inclusion in an organization is good, but it must be done correctly. When inclusion is forced, as opposed to it being part of a company’s culture, and a natural outcome of that culture, it can create conflict and harsh feelings.

Now what about cohesion? It’s not static, just sitting around in right field. Cohesion comes from the Latin word cohere, which means “to stick together.” That’s precisely what we’re looking for!

We want more than just inclusion; we want relationships. That way, when some big challenge comes up, people don’t start blaming each other. Instead, they get on with solving the problem, sticking together. Doesn’t that sound like what we’re trying to do?

In business, we exist to get work done. When businesses succeed, communities prosper, and that process works a lot better when we’re in close agreement, engaged, and working well together. Inclusion sets you on the road to a sense of belonging, but cohesion helps you get there.

One dictionary we looked at gave this example: “Operational effectiveness depends on team cohesion and the maintenance of trust and loyalty.” This is important because companies talk about trust and loyalty all the time. They like to say, “We’re a trust-based service organization,” or “We have a trust-based sales process.”

The word cohesion implies an undergirding of trust and loyalty. So, the challenge is to find those elements in existing systems, then enhance social cohesion while minimizing exclusion.

Commonality, Equality, and Cohesion Defined

What do we mean by commonality, equality, and cohesion (CEC) when we use those words together? CEC is a values based, culture driven, people centric methodology. It’s a new approach designed to go beyond a programmatic approach to achieve DEI in the workplace.

Making Differences Work book cover, showing two sides of a coin with "diversity, equity, inclusion" on one side and "commonality, equality, cohesion" on the other

CEC has the same goal but uses a different approach, a different methodology. In the last thirty years, some things about DEI have worked, but many things have failed. Some have even diverted DEI in a way that causes friction and divisiveness. That’s why we need to go beyond DEI. The goal of a CEC plan is to create a work environment where employees of all backgrounds come together and learn to value and appreciate each other.

This goal is an essential aspect of CEC. It’s not just checking off a box on a form. No way. CEC defines how we interact with each other, how we treat one another, and how we care about each other. It describes how we value and appreciate one another. CEC aims for far more than just getting the right people around the table.

The goal of CEC is achieved by emphasizing what employees have in common (commonality), what opportunities and rewards all employees have (equality), and what brings people together (cohesion). Does that mean we’re going to ignore our differences? Absolutely not. Our differences are readily apparent, and that’s part of the joy of life, isn’t it? But we don’t just focus on our differences. What’s really exciting is when we can get beyond our differences and dig deeper to find our commonalities.

Do words matter? Of course, they do. Diversity, equity, and inclusion represent a logical starting place, but based on definitions, commonality, equality, and cohesion are far more worthy goals. The bottom line is that commonality, equality, and cohesion have a clearer and stronger impact on desired outcomes than diversity, equity, and inclusion by itself.

This article is excerpted from the book Making Differences Work by Paul Sarvadi and Eli Jones (Insight Publishing Group, 2024).

Paul Sarvadi is the co-founder, chairman, and CEO of Insperity, a $5 billion company that helps businesses achieve success by making the most of their human capital.

Eli Jones is the Lowry and Peggy Mays Eminent Scholar and Professor of Marketing at Texas A&M University.