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Don't Let Divisions Lead to Workplace Dysfunction

Our search for belonging how our need to connect is taking us apart.

Our communities are increasingly becoming ideological enclaves. From our social organizations, to our places of worship, to the media outlets we gravitate toward, we tend to surround ourselves with like-minded people and similar points of view. Although humans naturally bond with those in their own groups, this tendency can foster unhealthy mindsets against those with political, religious and cultural differences. My new book, Our Search for Belonging: How the Need for Connection Is Tearing Our Culture Apart (Berrett-Koehler, 2018), describes how to bridge the divide in our increasingly polarized society.

For many of us, the workplace has become the most diverse setting in our lives. Our work relationships tend to cut across race, gender, religion, sexual orientation and political persuasion. Because of this, workplace environments have the potential to orient us toward working across differences more than anyplace else.

Still, businesses often represent a microcosm of society and companies find it more and more difficult to avoid the tension that society's divisiveness creates. Studies show that workplace tension causes both generalized stress and an increased reticence around talking about controversial issues, even when they impact the work. 

Allowing the tribalism that has infected our society to undermine work environments is contrary to successfully meeting company goals and objectives. For this reason, companies need to take up the important work of addressing issues of diversity and culture and finding common ground. While many organizations provide skills training, it's just as important that they provide training in interpersonal areas, such as communication, inclusion and unconscious bias.

Several companies now explore ways of orienting employees to work across differences. For example, Target sponsors "Courageous Conversations" workshops for engaging employees of all backgrounds to talk about difficult issues, such as travel bans for people from predominantly Muslim countries.

Kaiser Permanente has instituted a successful model for organizational belonging. Former CEO George Halvorson coached executives to act as team leaders rather than bosses. Every team was given the task of trying to improve regarding the organization's stated values, and then best practices were shared. Halvorson explained, "When our organization fosters a culture of 'us,' we look out for each other in a different way. It can override our individual and societal belief systems."

Using the following strategies in your organization can help instill a sense of equity and belonging:

Build organizational structures and systems that create inclusive communities. In areas such as recruitment, hiring, onboarding and performance reviews, work to remove bias. Many companies have started to use "blind hiring," an approach in which some information is removed from resumes, although this can make it more difficult to identify potentially valuable employees with compelling stories. Also, understand that diversity involves more than "how many X's we have" and requires deep levels of engagement.

Create opportunities for dialogue across groups in the workplace. It's incredibly valuable to engage with people with different points of view, but it's essential that this happen as dialogue rather than debate. Create a safe space for the conversations, set ground rules and ask everyone to override their individual biases. Learning to listen actively to points of view you may not agree with, while resisting the tendency to convince others or win the argument, can translate to better employee-to-employee relations as well as employee-to-customer relations.

Encourage employees to share their own stories. Sharing personal stories is a way of belonging—of being heard and seen. Inviting the sharing of stories enables people to feel known, and also to know one another. It does, however, require time, attention and active listening. Invite employees to share their stories in meetings, in employee resource groups, in diversity education or anyplace it may fit into the employee experience. Sharing stories is a way to learn not only about one another personally but also about other worldviews. 

Acknowledge everyone's individual contribution. It's important that every employee understands how his or her role serves the greater good. Does the person at the front desk understand how welcoming people can affect the mood of what follows? Are the people who do administrative work and never see the customer acknowledged for the way they contribute to the customer experience? The acknowledgment of everyone's contribution to the mission gives people a sense of being part of a team.

Communicate a clear vision of corporate identity. An organizational mission that provides a clear vision for what the company is trying to accomplish is essential. Having a powerful and positive organizational narrative around belonging and the value of diversity, and frequently communicating and reinforcing that narrative, produces a story that employees can repeat, reflect on and internalize. It allows everyone to see himself or herself as part of a team and helps to override polarities from individual viewpoints.

The workplace may be our greatest hope for re-establishing connection between our different "tribes." Bridging divides in our organizational lives creates greater harmony and cooperation. Not only does engaging with different groups promote new insights, it validates the humanity of people on all sides of an issue.

Howard Ross is a lifelong social justice advocate and the founding partner of Cook Ross. He's considered one of the world's seminal thought leaders on identifying and addressing unconscious bias. He is also the author of Everyday Bias: Identifying and Navigating Unconscious Judgments in Our Daily Lives (Rowman and Littlefield, 2014) and ReInventing Diversity: Transforming Organizational Community to Strengthen People, Purpose and Performance (Rowman and Littlefield, 2013).



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