We are taught and conditioned to emphasize our differences, to accentuate our uniqueness, and to celebrate our diversity. But what about our similarities?

We are more similar than we are different. This is the fifth of the five foundational principles of the Leader Education and Development (LEAD) program conducted by the Institute for Postindustrial Leadership at the University of Indianapolis. We consider this the bedrock principle.

When relating to other people, we need to realize that our differences are primarily in degree, not dimension. Our similarities are evident on biological, psychological, physiological, emotional, and genetic levels.  However, we seem to put a premium on individual differences at the expense of mutual similarities.

There are many who do not accept the principle of similarity. They believe people are more different than they are similar – and even emphasize and perpetuate this myth by the way they think and act. Nothing positive or constructive comes from this belief because although our differences tell us apart, they can ultimately tear us apart. Only our similarities can bring us together. We cannot truly respect diversity until we accept similarity.

It may be true that most people intellectually understand this principle, but it is questionable they truly believe it. Empathy is related to the principle of similarity. When you believe in and internalize the principle of similarity, you begin to see yourself in other people. When you see yourself in others you respect the difference in others. Our differences are at the surface; our similarities are at our core. When you see yourself in others you realize other people do what you do; but you also realize that you could do what other people do – no matter how noble or ignoble.

Our similarities extend to our human needs and values. This is an essential element of the similar vs different principle. It is a common experience across cultures that the more we get to know different people the less differences we find between people. This is especially true when it comes to needs and values. We all possess the same core values because we all share the same basic needs. Values are positive and define our humanity – there are no negative values.

If you work for a manager or leader who believes people are not similar and focuses on differences, you become acutely aware of it by the way they speak and act, and in how they treat people. Their deep faulty assumption determines how they think and what they do. A similarities mindset breeds knowledge and trust; a differences mindset breeds ignorance and distrust. When similar vs different is internalized at the motive level it interacts with the other profound principles, determining how we think and driving how we act.

When we develop the similarity motive and form the related neurocircuitry, it does not mean we become blind to our differences; rather, it means our differences no longer blind us to our similarities. Only by acknowledging our similarities do we create the common ground that allows us to resolve conflicts, solve problems, cooperate and coordinate, and form coalitions and communities. This reality is constantly confirmed by our common experience. Yet sadly, it is all too often an uncommon occurrence between individuals, within organizations, and across cultures and countries.  

Three popular, powerful and appealing conventional beliefs perpetuate apparent differences that divide us. Race, gender differences, and generational differences all play instrumental roles in self-perpetuating stereotypes even though we know they are myths. Scientists have long known that racial categories recognized by society are not reflected at the genetic level and are now convinced that the standard labels used to distinguish people by race have little or no biological meaning. Race is a social concept, not a scientific one.

Most people believe that men and women are different, but it has been observed that across dozens of studies and meta-analyses, gender differences had either no or a very small effect on most psychological and physical variables measured. Other research has found gender differences fluctuate with age, changing at different times over the life span. This fluctuation indicates that gender differences are neither permanent nor stable. Myths about gender differences exacerbate and proliferate prejudicial beliefs and actions that affect both men and women at work and at home.

While quasi-scientific generational theories have created a cottage industry of consultants, legitimate research reveals that most of the publicized generational differences are nothing more than sweeping generalizations that are inconsistent at best and destructive at worst. Differences do exist, but they are much more the result of cultural, environmental, and age-stage differences. These studies do not support the conclusion that there are major differences in personality types, work-life balance desires, learning preferences or values from one generation to the next. All ages in the workforce have similar needs that they seek to satisfy. Broad social mores change over time, but certain human needs and values remain constant through the ages, including the need to be loved, respected, and appreciated. The most striking conclusion arrived at by most legitimate research studies is how much workers of different generations actually have in common.

We must rely on scientific evidence and profound principles to increase mutual understanding, decrease discrimination, and eliminate unequal treatment. The belief that people are more different than similar can only separate us from one another. Only when we become conscious of our similarities will we become capable of connecting with one another.

We are more similar than different. When we internalize this profound truth, we see ourselves in each other – our dignity and our humanity. We are bonded together by our human nature. We confirm and reaffirm this truth in the words “we are created equal with certain unalienable rights.”

Similar vs different is the basis for empathy, trust, and respect – the essential elements of collaboration in organizations – and the essence of postindustrial leadership.

This is the ninth article in a series by Terry and Matt. They are co-founders and directors of the Institute for Postindustrial Leadership at the University of Indianapolis. For more information about the Institute, go to: www.uindy.edu/postindustrial or email Terry and Matt at postindustrialinstitute@uindy.edu.