Real Leaders

Getting Beyond “Us Versus Them” in The Workplace

Photo by Simon Abrams on Unsplash
Our communities have increasingly become political enclaves. Places of worship, social organizations and exposure to media and social media all tend, more than not, to put us with people like ourselves. And, while it may be natural to gravitate toward people like ourselves, we’re increasingly falling into an “us versus them” mindset. We no longer merely disagree with others; instead we’re disavowing each other’s right to an opposing opinion. 
Businesses are finding it more and more difficult to avoid the tension that society’s polarity is bringing into the workplace. Studies show that this workplace tension causes not only generalized stress, but an increased reticence to talk about controversial issues, even when they impact the work.
It’s important to find ways to bridge the divide so that we can create greater harmony and cooperation in our workplaces. We tend to work next to people who are of a different race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender, of different ages, and have different family situations and different politics, but we have to find a way to successfully pursue our goals and objectives. Because the workplace is often the most diverse community in which we interact, it may be our greatest hope for reestablishing connection between our different “tribes.”
Organizations are discovering that, apart from providing training in skills alone, it’s just as important to provide training in more interpersonal areas. A number of workplaces around the country are beginning to offer training and programs in areas such as communication, diversity, inclusion and unconscious bias. Target, for example, sponsors a workshop to encourage dialogue between white women and women of color. General Mills conducts regular critical conversations in which employees come together to talk about their concerns and find common ground.
To begin working on interpersonal skills in your organization, start by addressing these issues:

1. Begin with understanding our personal biases. 

If we’re going to make conscious choices to create a more inclusive workplace, we have to develop a deeper understanding of our own biases. Being aware of our biases is the first step in helping us manage them. That requires slowing down our thinking and avoiding knee-jerk reactions. We have to develop constructive uncertainty and consider the possibility that there may be other points of view or information that we’re not aware of. 

2. Get to know the other point of view. 

We’re deeply influenced by the informational echo chambers we live in, but it’s important to take the time to really understand where others are coming from on the other side of an issue. Rather than focusing only on whatpeople on the other side believe, focus on why they believe it — and apply the same inquiry to ourselves. Are we being true to our own beliefs, or are we just stuck in the desire to be right? If we can get to know others’ point of view, from their framework, we may have ways to find common ground that we can’t see when we’re more committed to being right. 

3. Try to disagree without being disagreeable. 

There’s no denying how difficult this is, particularly in the light of our current cultural dissonance. Agree on a set of ground rules. For example, decide: “We’re not here to persuade, defend or interrupt. We’re here to be curious, to be authentic and to listen.” The more we can keep the conversation in a civil tone, the greater the chance we have of understanding each other and finding common ground. 

4. Be willing to forgive and apologize. 

Be willing to admit when you’re wrong. This may be the greatest flaw in our current situation. People have gotten so attached to being right that they refuse to even consider admitting when they’ve made mistakes. If you messed up by becoming overly aggressive, getting caught up in the emotions of the moment, or whatever, apologize. And also be willing to forgive. As Nelson Mandela said, “Courageous people do not fear forgiving, for the sake of peace.” 

5. Leave room for change. 

Perhaps the only certainty of life is that things will change, both within each of us and in the world around us. As John F. Kennedy said, “Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.” It’s so important to keep an open mind, keep reevaluating the current realities and not let your politics and opinions define you. Instead of looking for ways to justify your beliefs, look for ways to learn. 
While workplaces have the potential to orient people to working across differences, it’s important to remember that this is not a “problem” of any one group — it’s a challenge to the whole of our society that we all need to address.