Courageous Conversations in a Time of Polarization

By Anuradha Hebba

Today’s societal climate is polarized. We certainly saw that with the most recent presidential election, with divergent points of view in Red states vs. Blue states, Republicans vs. Democrats. In times of unprecedented diversity we are deeply divided as a nation, especially on issues around race, religion, sexual orientation, socio-economics and education. An “us vs. them” evaluative mindset in how we view differences is very visible among various groups. 

Corporations are a microcosm of society. Employees from varying backgrounds and experiences show up to work very uncomfortable as they experience different realities in their lives and in how they perceive what is happening on the national news. They come into work paralyzed and unsure of what to say or do. On autopilot, they walk the halls in fear and feel disengaged, (only 33 percent of US employees are engaged and only 15 percent of employees worldwide are engaged, according to Gallup) collecting a paycheck and putting in their time. Corporations are not getting the productivity out of their people to innovate and help grow their businesses given the major disruption of current business models. 

An added layer of complexity is that corporate cultures can also be challenging for employees. In my work conducting organizational research around workplace cultures in Fortune 500 corporations, employees often describe their corporate cultures as being consensus driven, risk averse, conflict avoidant and “nice” – where being politically correct is the norm. They often say they are not able to speak freely in meetings on core business topics, because they are afraid that what they say will be held against them, negatively impacting them on the job and in reviews. Anything perceived as counter culture evokes fear in employees from not being liked to being fired. This cultural context has a greater impact on employees from diverse backgrounds. Additionally, research also shows that when polarization is present in an organization, diverse groups typically feel “uncomfortable.”

We know that leaders set the tone. They shape the culture and they role model valued cultural behaviors. We also know that authenticity is the most important determinant of leadership success. Being authentic means being genuine. New entrants and early career professionals are demanding a different work environment – one that is inclusive and values diversity broadly, including diversity of thought. They are looking for authentic, inclusive leaders as role models. 

An inclusive leader is one who understands team members’ commonalities and differences and brings out the best in everyone. This involves actively developing the skills to have courageous conversations in the workplace and to create a sense of belonging for everyone on the team. At its core, inclusive leadership requires the ability to have candid and open dialogue about differences. No longer is it optional for leaders to be silent on what’s going on in our society or in our workplaces. So how do you create a safe environment to conduct courageous conversations given today’s complexities? 

Here are four fundamental steps. 

  1. Engage your teams. We must invite them into the conversation and then give them permission to speak up. Research indicates that the more personal and risky the topics such as diversity and inclusion, the more difficult it is for people to stay committed and engaged. Opening up dialogues when it appears that things are just better left unsaid is frightening. We have to have the courage to do so as leaders. 
  1. Take the lead and lean into discomfort. We, as leaders, have to take the first step and lean into discomfort if we are to create an environment where everyone can feel comfortable being uncomfortable. When people have conversations around sensitive topics such as race/ethnicity, sexual orientation or other dimensions of diversity, they often experience personal discomfort about what they become aware of in their own perspectives or those of others. Often people experience intense disagreement and cognitive dissonance as they unpack others’ perspectives. All of us have to let go of the perspectives we have been holding on to in order to move forward collectively. 
  1. Allow people to speak candidly about their thoughts, perspectives, feelings and experiences. Only by exchanging honest, heart-felt sentiments, can people transform themselves. This is risky for people. As leaders we have to encourage it, appreciate it and value those opinions even if they are contrary to our own worldviews.
  1. Accept that there will be unfinished business. There are no definitive answers. There are just ongoing conversations and continuous learning. Having lively, gut-wrenching conversations means we are actually making progress. 

Courageous conversations are one intentional strategy for decreasing the polarization and being less judgmental. They help us move forward by finding commonalities and learning to respect differences, all of which lead to better team performance. 

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