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How to Build Inclusive Workplace Communities

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We live in a world in which challenging differences confront us daily. Fearful times intensify “us versus them” thinking. It can interfere with our ability to work collectively, even if we live in the illusion that we can keep these challenges separate from our work environments.

The workplace remains one of the most diverse strongholds in our increasingly segmented society. Our work relationships, on the whole, cut across race, gender, sexual orientation and religious affiliation. They force us to collaborate with people who are of different ages, have different family situations and different politics. In all of it, we have to find a way to be successful in pursuing our goals and objectives. In that sense, the workplace offers the impetus and the opportunity for community and belonging to exist.

The greater diversity of the workforce is a factor that improves business performance, as well as provides a place for people who are very different to have to find a way to work together. This is why embracing diversity at work is important. Most workplaces recognize this, which is why more than 90 percent of Fortune 500 companies have some kind of diversity and inclusion effort.

The challenge is that greater diversity, in a structure or system that’s not prepared to support it, can yield increased tension among employees. All of this supports the notion that it’s in an organization’s best interest to learn how to structurally and systemically embrace belonging within an increasingly diverse workforce.

As a starting point, here are some behaviors that people in organizations can embrace to develop organizational community and help employees understand their differences and work together more effectively:

  1. Actively promote the core narrative of the organization and invite employees to share theirs. The narrative that we weave about who we are, why we’re here and what we stand for sets both our internal community and the external community on a path to understanding us. It gives people something to belong to. Having a powerful and positive organizational narrative around belonging and the value of diversity and dissenting views, and frequently communicating and reinforcing that narrative, produces a story that employees can repeat, reflect on and internalize. Encourage employees to share their own stories with each other and support them in doing so, because sharing personal stories is a way of belonging, of being heard and seen. Sharing stories can happen in meetings, in employee resource groups, in diversity education or anyplace that fits into the employee experience. Sharing stories is one way to learn not only about each other personally but also about our distinctive worldviews.
  1. Recognize that the effective side of the business is as important as the material side. Businesses have often operated as if the only thing that matters is from the neck up. The more technical the business, the more likely this is true. But that notion couldn’t be further from the truth. Decision-making is overwhelmingly intuitive and deeply affected by how we’re feeling. Creating an open environment to discuss how people are feeling is critical to an organizational community. Be sensitive to times when there’s stress, whether it’s inside the organization or societal. People need to talk about it, or at least be offered the opportunity to do so. We often avoid this kind of encounter because we’re uncomfortable dealing with people’s feelings, but that doesn’t make it any less critical.
  1. Educate people and provide them with the tools to be successful. Education is critical to making sure that all employees have a common understanding and a consistent framework and skills for operating within the organizational community. While many organizations provide skills training, it’s just as important to provide training in more interpersonal areas such as communication, diversity, inclusion and unconscious bias. Traditional diversity training often emphasizes differences, which can increase tension between groups and result in backlash, and so some people claim that “diversity training doesn’t work.” Instead, training should emphasize how bias is fundamental to the way human beings process the world, should speak to common ground rather than to differences and should be relevant and applicable to people’s worlds.
  2. Create opportunities for people to dialogue with each other on challenging topics. People bring their concerns with them wherever they go, whether it’s reaction to the political circumstances of the day, breakdowns in religious or moral beliefs or emotional responses to a racially charged incident in our community. It’s not easy to bring up topics like these. Create a space where people have an opportunity to participate in dialogue. Target has done with its “Courageous Conversations” workshops. It’s incredibly valuable to engage with different points of view, but it’s essential that this be done as a dialogue rather than a debate — we want to be more like scientists than like lawyers. We can validate the humanity of people on the other side of an issue, even if we disagree completely with their point of view. One of the great challenges we have in our interactions is that we work harder at trying to convince each other, to win the argument, or to be right than we do at trying to understand each other’s point of view.

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. Ross has delivered programs in 47 states and over 40 other countries to audiences including Fortune 500 companies and major institutions within healthcare, government, and non-profit sectors. He authored the Washington Post best seller, 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 (Berrett-Koehler, May 8, 2018) describes how to bridge the divide in our increasingly polarized society. Learn more at cookross.com.

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