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America’s New Tribalism Is Spilling Over to the Workplace. Here’s How to Stem the Tide

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Our innate need to connect with others like ourselves increasingly places us at odds with people we view as “other.” Now, more than ever, this tendency has created greater polarity, leaving us strongly connected within our social organizations, but deeply divided as a society. The divisiveness we’re experiencing politically, the separated access to information the media provides and our segregation into communities of like-minded people have led to more pronounced tribalism than ever before and unhealthy attitudes against those with different viewpoints than our own.

For many, our workplaces have become the most diverse part of our lives. These environments cut across gender, race, religion, political persuasion and sexual orientation. Performing our work forces us to collaborate with people with whom, in our segregated enclaves, we normally don’t interact. We are compelled to find ways to successfully fulfill company goals and objectives despite our differences. This means the workplace may be our greatest hope for reestablishing a connection between our different tribes.

That’s not to say that all workplaces are inherently inclusive. Many tend to represent a microcosm of society and employees gravitate toward and connect with their tribes. Organizations can find it difficult to avoid the tension that such segregation creates. In fact, studies show that workplace schisms cause stress and an increased reticence toward addressing controversial issues, even when they impact the work.

But organizations that ignore the divisiveness spilling over into the workplace and that allow these tensions to undermine work performance jeopardize their success. Organizations need to take up the important work of addressing issues of diversity, culture and finding common ground. Just as organizations provide skills training, they also need to provide training in interpersonal areas, such as communication, inclusion and addressing unconscious bias.

Some companies have put in place training and programs that help to effectively unite staff. For example, Target developed “Courageous Conversations” to provide a forum for employees of different backgrounds to discuss important issues affecting segments of the staff, such as 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 directed to operate as team leaders instead of bosses. Each team was tasked with instituting improvements that promoted the organization’s values, and Kaiser 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.”

Explore these approaches to bridging differences and building a sense of community in your workplace by using these strategies:

  1. Promote the organization’s core narrative. The narrative an organization weaves about why it exists and what it stands for provides a path to understanding. It gives staff something to belong to. Having a powerful and positive organizational narrative around belonging and the value of diversity, and frequently reinforcing that narrative, produces a story that employees can repeat, reflect on and internalize.
  1. Build organizational systems and structures for inclusive communities. Consciously work to restructure basic systems within your organization to remove bias wherever possible — from recruitment to hiring to onboarding to performance reviews and more. It’s important to recognize that diversity involves more than the number of people you have that represent different groups. Instead, think of it as cultivating open-minded thinking and connection.
  1. Create a safe space for conversations. Provide opportunities for sharing differences of opinion on issues that involve diverse points of view. First, set ground rules so the discussions can unfold as dialogues rather than debates. Ask everyone to try to move beyond their individual biases and, rather than become emotionally engaged, to take an intellectual attitude toward the conversation. Encourage everyone to resist the tendency to convince others or to win the argument, and instead, to simply listen and share their perspectives. Learning to listen actively to points of view we may not agree with can translate to better employee-to-employee relations as well as employee-to-customer relations.
  1. Recognize each individual’s contribution to the organizational mission. When all associates are aware of their role in the organization’s success, they stay focused on the big picture rather than thinking nobody cares how well they perform. Everyone needs to be acknowledged for his or her role in serving the overall mission. 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? Recognition of everyone’s contribution to the mission gives people a sense of being part of a team.

Thoughtfully and consciously addressing the tensions caused by the polarization in our society can help us bridge divides in our organizational lives. Not only does overcoming differences promote new insights, create greater harmony and enhance cooperation, it validates the humanity of people on from all the different tribes.

Howard J. Ross is a lifelong social justice advocate and a principle in Udarta Consulting. He was previously the founding partner of Cook Ross, Inc. He’s considered one of the world’s seminal thought leaders on identifying and addressing unconscious bias. He authored the bestseller, "Everyday Bias: Identifying" and "Navigating Unconscious Judgments in Our Daily Lives, and ReInventing Diversity: Transforming Organizational Community to Strengthen People, Purpose and Performance." His new book, "Our Search for Belonging: How the Need for Connection Is Tearing Our Culture Apart" describes how to bridge the divide in our increasingly polarized society. Learn more at howardjross.com.

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