Laura Kriska: “Words and good intentions are not enough to bridge gaps”

Words and good intentions are not enough to bridge gaps. You must take action. Using Black Lives Matter as an example, we can see that many organizations made statements last spring in support of BLM which was good to see, but words and slogans are not going to alter the trajectory of racism. We need […]

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Words and good intentions are not enough to bridge gaps. You must take action. Using Black Lives Matter as an example, we can see that many organizations made statements last spring in support of BLM which was good to see, but words and slogans are not going to alter the trajectory of racism. We need action including improved policies that foster a more equitable society.

As a part of my series about about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Laura Kriska.

Laura Kriska the author of The Business of WE is a leading cross-cultural consultant with more than thirty years of experience bridging gaps in diverse workplaces. She has worked with Fortune 500 companies on four continents helping thousands of professionals build trust across Us versus Them differences based on nationality, ethnicity, race, religion, age or any factor of identity. Her WE-building framework provides practical and actionable insights for creating a more inclusive and productive world.

Born in Tokyo, raised in Ohio and now residing in NYC, Laura has been navigating culture gaps her whole life. She regularly speaks on the topic of inclusion and conducts bilingual training sessions around the globe. Considered an authority on cultural integration, she is a regular lecturer and a TEDx speaker. She was the first American woman to work in Honda Motor Company’s Tokyo headquarters. This experience is the basis of her first book The Accidental Office Lady.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

My first job out of college was working in Tokyo in the headquarters of Honda Motor Company where I was the first and only American woman. I worked alongside several thousand Japanese professionals every day. I worked hard at fitting in — I had studied Japanese in college so I could communicate, but the way I looked, the way I sounded when speaking Japanese, my inability to understand the many invisible cultural rules made it hard for me to really fit in. I felt like an outsider — a ‘them.’

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

This is a story about changing the corporate culture of Honda Motor Company with WE-building before I knew to call it WE-building. There was a women’s only uniform policy — all women, no matter what their role in the company, were required to wear a blue, polyester skirt and vest. I didn’t like it but I wore it because I was the visitor to Japan and felt that it was my job as the visitor to adjust to their rules. Working side-by-side other professional women in the company helped me build relationships. I worked at this and eventually build two very strong relationships with two Japanese women in the company. One day they revealed that they did not like the uniform either! I was shocked. I had assumed that they liked the uniform because I never heard anyone complain. Soon after this, an invitation from the company was issued to all employees, as it was every year, to initiate a quality circle group which is a voluntary group of employees who generate a specific solution to a problem in the company. Usually these quality circles are organized around improving safety, productivity or cost. So I organized a group to abolish women’s uniforms. I worked with a diverse group including Japanese women, an American man and a French man. Eventually the company changed the corporate policy. This experience helped me understand how working across differences could lead to great results. I never could have changed the policy by myself but together our diverse group was successful and made a chance that has impacted the entire company for more than 30 years.

Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Ten years ago I got the idea for the book that was just published. The Business of WE is all about how to bridge any Us versus Them culture gap in the workplace and beyond. I hope people will use the tools in this book to narrow any gaps that are causing damage of any kind including problems with communication, relationships and productivity.

Ok, lets jump to the main part of our interview. According to this study cited in Forbes, more than half of the US workforce is unhappy. Why do you think that number is so high?

People spend many hours of their lives at work yet so many people do not feel connected to other people at work because of some type of Us versus Them dynamic. Maybe it is due to differences in age or religion or race. They don’t feel seen and valued. In some cases people feel actively excluded due to some aspect of their identity which is even worse.

Based on your experience or research, how do you think an unhappy workforce will impact a) company productivity b) company profitability c) and employee health and wellbeing?

Diversity has increased in virtually every workplace yet the effort to include people who may not identity with the majority culture in a particular place has not been proportional to this demographic shift. As a result, people who do not identify with the majority culture (and even those that do) may not feel connected and welcome and as a result there is unhappiness and a loss of productivity.

Can you share 5 things that managers and executives should be doing to improve their company work culture? Can you give a personal story or example for each?

These are the 5 Things I wish someone had told me.

  1. Culture gaps are not only related to nationality or different geographical regions. As a young person I thought culture gaps were mostly related to differences in nationality but eventually realized that culture differences can be related to any aspect of a person’s identity. For example, greeting strangers is obviously different in Japan compared to America or Brazil. In Japan, people tend to bow and in the U.S. people tend to shake hands and in Brazil there is way more kissing on the cheek. These cultural tendencies extend far beyond international boundaries. When I first moved to New York City from the Midwest it struck me that the people in my apartment building did not welcome me or go out of their way to say hello or learn my name. This was in contrast to my experience in Ohio where most people immediately near my apartment at least introduced themselves to their new neighbor.
  2. Us versus Them culture gaps occur based on any aspect of a person’s identity. We each have cultural identities made up of many factors. Some of these factors or fixed and unchanging while others change. For example, age and generation do not change while occupation, education and life experience do change throughout a person’s life. When we encounter people who share some identity characteristic we often feel a bond with that person. For example, people my age can often relate to common TV shows — like Gilligan’s Island — from childhood as a cultural reference. Another example is when people recognize that someone attend the same school as they did.
  3. Us versus Them gaps often result when people from different backgrounds remain on the surface and don’t look for common factors and common goals. Limiting your view of another person to what you can see about them is too narrow and can lead to stereotypes and problems. It is not possible to know another person simply by looking at them. For example, people from different countries who may not share the same first language, can bond over specific life experience such as having been in the military. I remember a gathering several years ago with people from at least six different countries. Not everyone was a native English-speaker. At the lunch break we discovered that at least four of the participants had all attended Catholic school in different countries. Once they discovered that common point there was a lot of connection.
  4. The 2 most important factors to successfully bridging any specific Us versus Them gap are a genuine wish to bridge that gap and an ability to be honest about yourself and your choices. If you are genuine about wanting to learn about another person’s cultural group and you can be honest & humble about ways you have not taken action to learn about that group in the past, then it is possible to narrow gaps. It’s also possible to do this without spending a lot of money. I work on educating myself about cultural groups that are relevant to my life. The obvious example of this was when I worked in Japan. I learned how to speak Japanese and understand cultural norms that were unfamiliar. This simple idea can be applied to any person who wants to bridge a gap.
    – One way I am applying these tools now is in relation to the race gap in the U.S. As a middle-aged white person who grew up in very homogeneous communities, I was ignorant of many aspects of Black life and culture. I am genuine in my wish to learn which I do, for example, by reading books and listening to podcasts that help me understand information I should have learned long ago. This is just the start of a long process that I will continue for the rest of my life.
  5. Words and good intentions are not enough to bridge gaps. You must take action. Using Black Lives Matter as an example, we can see that many organizations made statements last spring in support of BLM which was good to see, but words and slogans are not going to alter the trajectory of racism. We need action including improved policies that foster a more equitable society.

It’s very nice to suggest ideas, but it seems like we have to “change the culture regarding work culture”. What can we do as a society to make a broader change in the US workforce’s work culture?

One of the most important ways we can make broader change is to insist that leaders engage in the work of examining themselves as it relates to diversity, equity and inclusion. Let’s face it, most positions of authority in Corporate America are held by middle-aged white people (people like me) who may have great intentions but have never examined their own level of personal integration with non-white people. Any person charged with making decisions about diversity, equity and inclusion must have some meaningful first-hand understanding of non-white culture. In my book, The Business of WE, I provide 10 simple questions to any person who is genuine about bridging any Us versus Them gap. These ten ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions provide an immediate numeric indicator of how integrated a person is with their selected ‘them’ cultural group. A low number reflects a superficial level and a high number reflects a more substantial experience which leaders must have in order to impact broader change in the US workforce.

How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

In my first job working for Honda I had a boss named Shigeyoshi Yoshida who became my mentor. He was a true WE-builder and continued to influence me throughout my career. I met him when I was a summer lifeguard at the Honda swimming pool before going to Japan for my junior year of college. He and his wife invited me to their home for dinner before I left for Japan and when I left he handed me a piece of paper with the name of a person working in Honda’s Tokyo headquarters and suggested that I might get a part time job there. That was the beginning of my professional journey and I’m pleased to say that Mr. Yoshida is still my mentor. He is one of the people I dedicated the book to because of his long and positive impact on my life.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

It is my goal to inspire a WE-building revolution where people take action to bridge any Us versus Them gaps in the workplace and beyond. I’ve seen the positive impact WE-building has had on my own life and the lives of thousands of clients. I want to share these tools with a wide audience to help limit gaps wherever they are causing problems.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

President Obama’s Presidential Inaugural Poet Richard Blanco wrote in his book How to Love a Country, “Overall, we’ve managed to move toward a more inclusive understanding of ourselves and acceptance of each other. Historically, though, we have wavered and are currently at a crossroads: Are we going to advance toward a broader definition of ‘we’ or will we retreat to a narrower one?

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

WE-building is the movement I am committed to inspiring but I cannot do this alone. I need your help and the help of other open-minded folks who are willing to take actions. The ten questions from my book are available for free on my website and I encourage your readers to check them out. It’s my wish that these ten simple questions become an often used touchstone as we all work to build a more unified society.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you continued success!

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