We live in a world in which challenging differences confront us on a daily basis. We often live with the illusion that we can keep these challenges at home and just go to work to do work. But people bring their concerns with them wherever they go, whether it’s a reaction to the political circumstances of the day, breakdowns in moral beliefs or emotional responses to racially charged incidents.
It’s not easy to bring up topics like these. Appealing as it may be to think that the best way to approach divisive issues is to pretend they don’t exist, research shows that it simply doesn’t work.
Consider, for example, three colleagues at a holiday work party, coming just months after the recent U.S. presidential election. The room is abuzz with conversations about politics, with people either celebrating or commiserating with their friends. Waiting for in line for the buffet, the three fictitious employees stand awkwardly, their countenance suggesting politeness, but not much more.
One of them, we’ll call Joan Smith, is a Republican, strongly connected to her Christian church community and a regular viewer of “Fox and Friends.” She dodges political conversations and dislikes having to defend her political stance.
Another, Barry Jones, is a middle-age gay man married to his Hispanic partner. Alarmed by the direction he sees the country going, he’s part of a community organization group working to elect more Democrats to Congress. Barry stays apprised of national news from watching MSNBC.
The third, Fatima Mohammed, was born in the U.K. to parents who had immigrated from Afghanistan. Her husband, from a family of Somali immigrants, is a physician. Both are devote Muslims. Their teenage son has experienced taunting at school from students asking if he and his family will be deported. The family is frightened by the anti-Muslim political rhetoric and the news they hear on the BBC.
As the three stand in line, outspoken Barry comments on something in the news. Both Joan and Fatima become uncomfortable and reluctant to engage in the conversation. Each has a very clear political perspective influenced by the media she’s exposed to, the people they talk to and the people they avoid. Questions fill the women’s minds concerning what’s safe to say, how to disagree without becoming disagreeable, whether their job could be at stake if they shared their opinions and where they can find their own group who shares their beliefs among the party goers.
The three may agree on some things and disagree vehemently on others. It’s possible, for example, that Joan and Fatima may align on their views regarding sexual orientation, but disagree on political issues. Barry may agree with Fatima about some political values, but disagree around sexual orientation. Joan may perceive Barry as “another American,” despite her feelings about his sexual orientation, but see Fatima as an outsider.
Each of the three has a strong community of support where they feel a sense of belonging, yet at work they must interact with those outside their communities. They’re confronted with the reality that, despite their dissimilarities, they have to come together on a daily basis and work toward the common goals of their company.
For this reason, workplace environments have the potential to orient people toward working across differences more than any other place. Within an increasingly diverse workforce, it’s in an organization’s best interest to bring employees together to learn how to structurally and systemically build bridges across differences — which is why more than 90 percent of Fortune 500 companies have some kind of diversity and inclusion effort.
To begin a meaningful dialogue across diverse groups in the workplace, start with these seven tips:
1. Create a safe space for the conversation. Be sure that there’s enough time and that distractions are limited. It also helps to create a safe container and ground rules for the conversation.
2. Invite everybody to recognize his or her own biases. It’s helpful to do this at the beginning of the conversation, so employees are aware of how those biases might affect their participation.
3. Encourage participants to be willing to be emotionally vulnerable as well as intellectually engaged. That includes inviting them to share what they’re afraid of in participating in the dialogue.
4. Consider having participants reflect what they’re hearing. This will help others be sure that they’ve been heard.
5. Distinguish between group perspective and personal perspective. Do this throughout the conversation. Acknowledge everyone’s individual contribution to the discussion.
6. Resist the temptation to convince others. Emphasize that the conversation isn’t a debate. Just being able to listen to each other without being defensive can be a significant accomplishment.
7. Look for ways to move the conversation forward. Collective action can be especially helpful in doing this, so seek out ways people can work together toward continuing the conversation.
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.
Establishing connections within our working lives opens doors to greater understanding and cooperation. When we engage with people with separate perspectives, we gain new insights and we also validate the humanity of people regardless of differences.