By Anik Decoste, a purpose-driven entrepreneur with 15+ years experience designing social impact strategies for Fortune 500 companies, and founder of N/A and MTTR.
In the last decade, there has been a growing expectation that companies become more and more socially conscious. This demand arose largely from a generation of socially conscious individuals who demanded more from their brands, their peers and their workplaces. So companies adjusted. Many underwent extensive internal work to infuse social consciousness into their brand and company culture.
As this social consciousness grew, so did the demand for inclusivity, diversity and equality. This was needed and good. HR departments expanded and new positions in diversity and social inclusion sprung up. We needed people, policy and practice to manage and foster these new ideas and to build this culture within our workspaces.
Somehow, though, during very turbulent times in the past two years, against a backdrop of a global pandemic, intense social unrest, nationwide protests and a highly divisive election, a cornerstone of what we should include and uphold as diversity was ousted: diversity of thought. Thought included politics, and politics had become highly polarized and problematic.
Previous to all of this, it was generally advised that we not talk about these things at work. It was personal in nature, and work was not the place to share personal views. Now, however, since the 2016 election, with a rise in companies and CEOs taking a strong public stance on societal issues, we have been presented with a new expectation that our thinking, our politics, our values and ultimately our morality should be stated and worn on our sleeves at work.
Not only that, but they must align with and be the same as our coworkers or we don’t belong. This created much tension and conflict, often resulting in employee strife. Companies did what they could to manage it. Some leaned into the “sameness” expectation and others avoided it completely. Coinbase and Basecamp took hard stances on internal discourse and tried to eliminate potential issues by claiming that politics was a distraction and didn’t belong in the workplace. As a result, Basecamp lost a third of its employees.
But taking a hard stance on such a sensitive and complex issue doesn’t seem to be the solution. Banning civil discourse only sends the message that you don’t trust your employees enough to be able to have these conversations openly and responsibly. It tells them, also, that you don’t foster a culture of true diversity and inclusion — one inclusive of thought, and yes, even politics. As leaders, we need to do the opposite.
We need to remind employees that true diversity and inclusion encompasses all dimensions. We need to create an environment where it is acceptable to disagree, but where we expect it to be done respectfully. An environment where we can all trust that conflict is not harmful, where disagreement can lead to growth and where our differences can and do make us stronger.
As polarizing societal issues infiltrate the workplace, how can leaders foster a company culture that embraces differences of thought? Teach your employees to embody the following behaviors to foster greater empathy and acceptance of diversity.
Be fearless. You have to “go there” to get somewhere better. It’s hard and scary to ask questions, share our point of view, leave our echo chambers and explore other perspectives. We fear getting attacked, “canceled” or isolated. But now more than ever we have to be fearless and willing to do these things to gain a better understanding of each other and the issues keeping us apart. Don’t bully or shame; stand apart from the bully and the mob; seek to understand other voices. Sometimes agree to disagree, but do it with respect. Be willing to go to the tension of an issue in order to listen, learn and grow from the experience.
Always be curious. It’s not what you know, it’s how much you want to know. Be curious to see all sides, not take sides. Strive to better understand what’s going on and why. Strive to understand others. Don’t lose sight that we have more in common with one another than social media and the news would have us believe.
Embrace difference. Don’t be afraid of different. Don’t run away from different. Embrace different. Leverage different. Our differences make us stronger and make our communities better. Seek out a diversity of people, perspectives and viewpoints. It’s not so black and white out there. A gray area is a colorful place. So let’s leverage our differences, foster healthy discourse and repair the divide that is so often manufactured.
True leaders, the ones who unite us, understand that these are behaviors that strengthen teams. By fostering the courage, thought leadership, maturity and responsibility required to welcome diversity of thought on your team, you are also fostering true leadership. This can actually improve productivity as creativity flourishes in environments that welcome difference and true belonging, not just fitting in. Coming together, even with our perceived differences, is the only way to affect lasting, positive change and create true impact.