The following principles drawn from case studies, articles and other sources and suggest some ways companies can help move the conversation forward and bridge the divide.
While several of the principles can be applied to more than one example, two universal recommendations emerge when planning and executing an initiative:
Invest in facilitators – either hiring them or training your own team
Engage employees or other key audiences when developing a program to ensure it is relevant to the people you are looking to reach
“We Listen.” These simple words are core to General Motors’ approach to creating an inclusive company where employees openly discuss and debate their different points-of-view, genuinely listen to each other, and hold themselves accountable on both counts. To thoroughly permeate the organization, however, this commitment has to start at the top, with the CEO and senior management team. Few embrace this the way that Mary Barra, Chairman and CEO of GM, does, telling her team, “Listening leads to awareness…awareness leads to dialogue, dialogue leads to understanding, and understanding leads to change.”
This need for commitment is not exclusive to the C-suite, however. Leaders of business units large and small need to do the same. One pharma executive created a task force within her division to hold herself and her team accountable. All involved have a voice in what the task force focuses on, including around the small group “courageous conversations” they hold. Inviting people to the proverbial table helps them to feel seen and heard which is critical to being able to have productive, respectful dialogue.
Companies that want to foster greater civil discourse internally or in their communities can take a page from The Better Arguments Project, an initiative of Allstate, the Aspen Institute, and Facing History & Ourselves designed to “bridge divides” by helping people have “better arguments.” The Better Arguments Project successfully facilitates very difficult conversations around race, class and identity across diverse communities by asking participants to adhere to five core principles:
Companies can get directly involved in the project by hosting a community-based event together or use the free resources to help employees learn how to bridge what seem like insurmountable divides.
Confronting difficult issues is…difficult, leading many people to avoid doing so. However, that approach often leads to further tension and discord. Chevron pioneered an approach in Africa, bringing members of the community together discuss and determine the best way to spend development funds. While corporations may not have to deal with the deep-seated rivalries Chevron did, encouraging people to come to the table together and rewarding compromise by implementing an idea the group came up with is an effective way to deal with conflict – or potential conflict. Beyond addressing internal issues, this approach is also useful externally, if a company is entering a new market or building a new retail space, for example, that is not well-received by the community.
Introduce your workforce to Abridge News. Created to address the “news echo chambers,” Abridge News provides multiple points-of-view on trending stories, offering “quick facts, an opinion spectrum, and reader reactions” for readers to use to form their own opinions. Beyond just reading, users can react directly by clicking on statements ranging from “Surprisingly, I agree” to “This does not paint the whole picture.”
The founders of Abridge News are not trying “to bring people towards the middle, but to build empathy and understanding between people who hold different opinions.” Considering the intensity of the workplace and how collaboration is required to get the best results, introducing a tool like this could be a simple way to drive home corporate values and encourage bridge building among employees – both inside and outside the office.
People are generally more alike than they are different. By building on this, companies can bring people closer together – internally or in the community. In Denmark, The Meaningful Society initiative is about holding reflective conversations before issues get too hot to handle.
In this program, trained professionals lead participants through a journey that:
While this approach requires a trained facilitator, it also brings people together, building not only empathy, but trust, a critical factor in civil discourse. Trust, coupled with respect, is also essential in a workplace. So, partnering with HR, OD or outside consultants to use this method to foster collaboration when addressing difficult issues could go a long way to improving the work environment and even performance.
Most people don’t know how to present a point-of-view, back it up with facts and be prepared to either defend their position or revise it based on new information. Instead, these conversations tend to become emotionally-charged discussions that can leave both parties angry and depleted.
University of North Carolina’s newly created Program for Public Discourse is focused on teaching college students how to participate in constructive dialogue and debate, but the principles behind the course can be adapted for business use. In fact, companies can benefit in many ways from this solution-oriented approach by incorporating evidence-based structures into business discussions as well as discussions around more sensitive social issues.
One of the most difficult aspects of engaging in effective civil discourse is ensuring that everyone truly feels heard, regardless of the ultimate outcome. Seems simple in theory, but it’s difficult in practice unless you know how to do it effectively. One idea a company can implement is based on the Center for the Study of Liberty’s Dinner Round Tables. In that program, small groups of people gather for a facilitated discussion on a predetermined topic. Participants are supplied with pre-reading and each session is kicked off by a subject matter expert. The format allows for all points-of-view to be shared and discussed openly. Taking this approach, an organization can hold “Lunch Round Tables” of their own in person or virtually, with pre-reading, a subject matter expert, and a facilitator skilled in managing difficult conversations.
Many companies have pledged to take action to address racial equity in the wake of the racial unrest in the summer of 2020, but become stuck when trying to take the next step of actually addressing the problem internally. According to Charlene Wheeless, Chair of the Arthur W. Page Society, the industry association of senior corporate communications executives, instead of creating or improving existing diversity and inclusion programs, leadership needs to confront the root of the problem – which in this case is systemic racism – and work from there.
That same approach – going right to the root of a problem rather than treating a symptom – works for other issues, too, such as pay equity and sexual harassment. Taking a deep dive into why a dynamic has taken hold rather than just the fact that it’s happening, even bringing in outside experts to weigh in, will result in a path to more productive solution.