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Five Hints for Navigating the Divergence/Convergence Leadership and HR Paradox

Dave Ulrich /

Kenny Rogers’s famous song teaches gamblers: "You got to know when to hold ’em, Know when to fold ’em[.]"

In our research, we found that today’s leaders have to know when to diverge and when to converge (clearly not as catchy as the song!!, but very relevant to today’s business).

Divergence captures the benefits of diversity. Divergence facilitates innovation and new business opportunities. Innovation increases when people with different perspectives engage in dialogue. Business opportunities outside a historical agenda also increases when divergent ideas push for strategic reinvention. Too little divergence locks leaders and organizations into the past, unable to anticipate and create a future. Too much divergence leads to random action, sub-optimized goals, and political squabbles that distract from business results.

Convergence captures the benefits of unity. Convergence enables action, rapid movement, and identity. People with shared goals and values move quickly to respond to opportunities. Organizations that stick to their knitting create a brand identity that builds reputation. Too little convergence leads to unfocused and random actions. Too much convergence means missing adaptation that might lead to new opportunities. 

Unity without diversity leads to groupthink; diversity without unity leads to unfocused action. Convergence overcomes the maxim “good is the enemy of great” because focus encourages greatness. Divergence overcomes the maxim “great is the enemy of change” because diversity encourages adaptation. 

Successful leaders have the ability to converge (focus), then diverge (expand options), then converge, then diverge, and so forth. Successful HR professionals encourage diversity but manage it with unity. Over time, this process (see figure) enables them to get the innovation benefits of diversity and the focus benefits of unity. 

So, how do leaders and HR professionals know when and how to manage this convergence/divergence paradox?

First, know your predispositions. 

Individuals have cognitive biases, and organizations have cultures. I call these biases and cultures predispositions because a predisposition can be recognized and changed. If you or your company is predisposed to divergence, force convergence by voting, clarifying, or simplifying. One leader would encourage open discussion, then lay out the two or three choices and have team members publicly vote for option A, B, or C. Often a very vocal individual would be arguing for an option, and the public vote would demonstrate more convergence around that option than might appear from the dialogue (which might be dominated by one individual). If you or your company is predisposed to convergence, encourage divergence by inviting options, seeing alternatives. A leader proposed that half the team argue option A and the other half option B (often with people on each side who believed the other option). This rather forced debate encouraged a broader discussion before a decision.

Second, surround yourself with people who are different from you.

A thoughtful leader once told her new team members, “I am going to put you on my team because you disagree with me. If you and I think alike, one of us is not necessary; and it won’t be me! But when we go public, we go with one voice.” Another leader would continually encourage having the frequent after-meeting discussions brought into the room for public discussion. Leaders encourage differences, which might include demographics (age, race, gender, geography), professional background (education, career, industry experience), and personal style (motivators, personality). A leader could continually ask the extent to which his or her team reflects the overall organization and mix of customers.

Third, ensure that different people have shared values. 

Shared values come from a common personal beliefs, commitment to each other, or belief in the organization’s purpose.  Often diversity programs start by understanding and respecting differences and helping people be more aware of their unconscious biases. Awareness of bias is helpful and allows for seeing another’s point of view. I am clearly biased by my heritage, life stage, personal values, and experiences.  Knowing my biases helps me appreciate others and diversity awareness is helpful. But rather than starting a personal agenda or organizational initiate by appreciating diversity, another option is to start with defining unity. In this case, a leader asks, “What are the core values one must have to work in this company?” This unity focus generally identifies a relatively small set of critical values (e.g., commitment to serving customers, treating others with respect). Then to get divergence with convergence, the leader and organization can then maximize diversity on other dimensions. A large, widely dispersed global company had a set of 7 values. As the focused on the “unity” then winnowed these to 4 and became very clear that the values and related behaviors were standards. If employees did not share a commitment to the values and a willingness to act on them, the company was a misfit for them. Then, the company encouraged maximum diversity on actions, background, and work style NOT related to those value.  This approach increased diversity with unity.

Fourth, have clear decision protocols.

How to move between convergence and divergence comes from clarity about decision protocols. Good decision-making (on strategy, products/services, customer services, operations) requires clarity about the problem and options (“What is the problem we are trying to solve and what are the options for doing so?”). Decision-making then further clarifies who will make the final decision (“Is this a consensus team decision or a leader decision?”). Decision-making then collects data from divergent views about the decision. Finally, decision-making converges to get a decision made and an action taken.

Finally, manage the process of transparent dialogue. 

The convergence/divergence paradox is better managed with fundamental dialogue norms: disagree without being disagreeable, have tension without contention, challenge positions not personalities, agree to disagree, etc. These rules of thumb enable open and honest conversations that raise differences (divergence) but also lead to focused action (convergence). 

Leaders need not be gamblers if they know when and how to diverge and converge: to have diversity with unity, to know when to listen and when to act, to make decisions through consensus or autonomy, to go slow or to go fast. Or as Kenny Rogers says:

You’ve got to know when to hold ’em,

Know when to fold ’em,

Know when to walk away

And know when to run.

So, how do you manage the tension between divergence and convergence?

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