There is no way around it—in the current environment, organizations cannot prevent social and political views from being shared in the workplace. Especially after the events of 2020, from politics to police violence to the pandemic, the lines between work and social discussions have increasingly blurred. This is not necessarily a bad thing; the real peril is when personal opinions become polarizing. The secret to preventing such polarization is to create an environment of trust—essentially, a safe space for people to be able to have conversations and share diverse viewpoints.
Many employees were isolated at home through the pandemic, and often the only place to share feelings about the turmoil going on in the world was in the physical or virtual workplace. Sensitive issues that may not previously have been discussed started to come out into the open more over the past two years. Creating a forum for shared experiences is critical not only for teams, but for the entire organization. If companies expect employees to bring their whole selves to work, they also need to build opportunities for employees to discuss issues that are impacting them outside of the workplace and, if applicable, help address them as a group.
The following three steps can help organizations cultivate a culture of mutual respect and forward-thinking ideas, rather than a culture of divisiveness and complacence.
STEP ONE: Create a Foundation of Trust
Psychological safety among team members is paramount for creating trust. Employees need to be comfortable sharing and be open to listening. In a recent Harvard Business Review article on psychological safety in the hybrid workplace, Professors Amy Edmondson and Mark Mortensen noted that the boundary between work and life has become increasingly blurry, and it is important to provide a culture of psychological safety that extends beyond the work context to include broader aspects of employees’ experiences.
Traumatic events are a reality of life, whether on an individual basis, such as a health diagnosis or loss of a loved one, or an issue that impacts a broader audience, such as the COVID-19 pandemic or the murder of George Floyd last summer. Employees are often asked to bring their whole selves to work, but employers need to recognize that also includes their traumas, and businesses must understand the impact that such events can have on their employees. Leaders, managers and colleagues need to practice empathy and truly listen to how these events affect employees’ lives. Providing a safe space to share these feelings is essential to building organizational trust.
STEP TWO: Frame the Discussion
Trust is earned, and how leaders handle difficult conversations will impact how the rest of the organization views them. It is critical to approach the exchange in the right way.
A recent article from the Forbes Coaches Council explored 16 ways leaders can successfully navigate tough workplace discussions and make them more constructive. Framing the conversation is essential, the experts wrote, suggesting that leaders take an outcome-oriented approach to determine what happened, who it affected, and what the plan is going forward for all parties involved.
Additionally, listen from a place of caring. It is important to listen and be empathetic to other viewpoints or sides of the issue. Practice being authentic, transparent and open to possible solutions. This helps to shape the narrative from a place of mutual respect. Taking note of different opinions, looking at the facts and working toward finding possible solutions together as a team all go a long way in establishing camaraderie and mutual respect. Leaders should acknowledge “we are all in it together,” and employees should be able to express their feelings professionally in a safe space, especially during times of turmoil or crisis.
In the aftermath of the pandemic and social trauma from the past year, a Harvard Business Review article by Lisa Zigarmi and Davia Larson suggested the quickest way to return to productive, high-performance work is through storytelling and story-listening designed to activate post-traumatic growth (PTG). PTG is “the transformative positive change that can occur as a result of a struggle with great adversity”—in other words, the growth that follows from a struggle in the aftermath of trauma.
As the authors noted, workplace conversations that allow employees to create meaning out of trauma increase their sense of strength and improve their relationships. Facilitating these discussions also increases employees’ sense of belonging and can ultimately create greater compassion and purpose. This storytelling and listening approach “encourages growth by helping an individual acknowledge the grief and loss caused by adversity, analyze its effect and meaning and internalize a positive resolution that activates self-transformation,” Zigarmi and Larson explained.
STEP THREE: Facilitate the Discussion
The “doing” part of difficult conversations can be complicated, especially in a post-pandemic environment where employees may be on-site, working from home or operating under a hybrid model. Having one-on-one meetings can be easier to arrange, but the larger the group, the more important it is to determine the right way to set up a meeting where everyone feels they have the opportunity to be included and heard.
It is critical to create an inclusive space for dialogue in the workplace. Courageous conversations in the workplace involve broaching complex and sensitive subjects and can stir strong emotions, which is why they require mindful discussion. According to Great Place to Work, a company that helps develop inclusive workplaces, organizations need to talk about these issues together and in a timely manner. To do so, the company advised:
- Set intentions clearly beforehand
- Provide a space for employees to address their feelings, concerns, hopes or anxieties
- Establish a dedicated time to talk
- Prepare groups or breakout sessions with someone who can carefully facilitate dialogue in a way that ensures everyone feels they can share without fear of judgement
- Set ground rules
- Be open to vulnerability
- Provide support for each other
Consider implementing programs for employees to help them feel comfortable discussing certain issues. This can be done through a facilitated forum or by creating opportunities for people to socialize, collaborate and get to know each other more on an interpersonal level. It is often said that a problem shared is a problem halved—talking about an issue with someone else often makes it seem less daunting or troubling.
Creating a sense of trust allows peers in the workplace to share experiences and bring their best selves to solve a problem. Keep in mind these dialogues should be ongoing, so it is important to find a format that works for an organization’s culture. Additionally, remember that difficult or traumatic situations are not fixed overnight, particularly with many of today’s most pertinent issues.
Self-Care for Leadership
Just as flight attendants instruct passengers on airplanes to put their own oxygen mask on first, it is important for leaders to show up fresh and mentally ready to tackle whatever obstacles may come their way. Being vulnerable and demonstrating courage by being honest about feelings helps to establish trust, but leaders should leverage a variety of self-care tools and strategies to ensure they are coming from a place where they can actually lead. Whether that means following an exercise regimen, practicing meditation, prioritizing rest, maintaining a healthy diet, or even seeking the advice of a coach, mentor or therapist, there are many tools to help any enterprise’s leaders to lead by example and create an environment and workplace culture that prioritizes the overall well-being of employees.
All in It Together
With any disruptive or dramatic change that occurs, leadership should be empathetic to the needs of individuals but also demonstrate confidence in the direction or plan they establish. This goes back to being transparent and vulnerable and establishing trust.
In the current climate, leaders need to prioritize company culture and provide flexibility to promote healthy engagement among employees. Fostering a focus on learning and finding solutions collaboratively rather than a top-down autocratic approach will help mitigate workplace polarization. Executives should be less scripted and more relatable when discussing these matters. Tolerance for different viewpoints and understanding others’ experiences and how these impact them on an individual level are essential to create a stronger team moving forward. Knowing that we are all in this together is an important part of that process.