by Howard Ross, author of “Our Search for Belonging: How Our Need to Connect Is Tearing Us Apart“
Our need to connect with people like ourselves is increasingly placing us at odds with people we view as “the other.” Now, more than ever, this tendency is causing us to form unhealthy attitudes against those with different political, religious and cultural viewpoints than our own. This leaves us strongly connected within our social organizations, and yet deeply divided as a society.
For many of us, our work environments put us among the most diverse people of any place in our lives. Because our work relationships often cut across gender, race, religion, political persuasion and sexual orientation, they have the greatest potential of uniting us across differences.
Places of employment tend to represent a microcosm of society where people will naturally gravitate toward and connect with their tribe. Companies can find it difficult to avoid the schisms that such segregation creates. In fact, studies show that workplace tension causes both generalized stress, and an increased reticence around talking about controversial issues, even when they impact the work.
When companies ignore how the tribalism that’s infected our society can spill over to the workplace, it can undermine the work environment and jeopardize the company’s goals and objectives. That’s why companies need to take up the important work of addressing issues of diversity, culture and finding common ground. Alongside the skills training that they provide, it’s important that they give their employees training in interpersonal communication, inclusion and addressing unconscious bias.
A few standout companies have instituted training and programs to unite staff across differences. Target, for example, sponsors “courageous conversations” that allow employees with different backgrounds to discuss topical issues, such as the travel bans on predominantly Muslims countries.
Kaiser Permanente’s former CEO George Halvorson established a successful model for organizational belonging. Executives and department heads were coached to act more as team leaders than bosses. Every team was tasked with instituting improvements that promoted the organization’s established values, and they shared best practices throughout the organization. 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.”
If your company is searching for approaches that can bridge differences and build and sustain a sense of connection, it will want to explore these strategies:
1. Communicate a clear vision and purpose.
Set your vision clearly, so that every employee understands and can articulate the company’s purpose and goals. Frequently communicating and reinforcing a powerful and positive organizational narrative around belonging and the value of diversity helps employees to internalize it. Each staff member can then see him- or herself as part of a team, which helps to cancel out polarities caused by differing viewpoints.
2. Develop systems and structures that promote diversity.
Work to remove bias across administrative systems — from recruitment to hiring to onboarding to performance reviews and more. Some companies use “blind resumes” to remove demographic information about applicants. Also, it’s important to recognize that diversity involves more than “how many Xs we have.” It’s about cultivating open-minded thinking and connection.
3. Create opportunities for dialogue on challenging subjects.
Create a safe space for conversations that involve different points of view, but make sure they happen as dialogues rather than debates. Set ground rules and ask everyone to move beyond their individual biases. Ask them to resist the tendency to convince others or to win the argument. Learning to listen actively to points of view you may not agree with can translate to better employee-to-employee relations as well as employee-to-customer relations.
4. Invite employees to share their own stories.
Sharing personal stories helps in promoting a sense of belonging – of being heard and seen. Sharing stories is a way to learn not only about each other personally, but also about other worldviews. Carve out time for employees to share their stories in meetings, in employee resource groups, in diversity education or anyplace it may fit into the employee experience.
5. Acknowledge everyone’s individual contribution.
Organizations function best as a unit when all associates have a stake in the organization’s success. It’s important that employees understand their individual roles in serving the greater good. Does the person at the front desk understand how welcoming people can affect the experience that 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 keeps people focused on the big picture and sense of being part of a team.
The workplace may be our greatest hope for reestablishing 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 the issues.
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 authored the Washington Post bestseller, “Everyday Bias: Identifying and Navigating Unconscious Judgments in Our Daily Lives“, and “Reinventing Diversity: Transforming Organizational Community to Strengthen People, Purpose, and Performance“. and the upcoming “Our Search for Belonging: How Our Need to Connect Is Tearing Us Apart“.