Today’s Future of Work Talk show is focused on workplace culture, and specifically polarization and divisiveness that exists within organizations. At a time when our political landscape is incredibly polarized, in spite of the diversity of our nation, or workplaces are likewise polarized.
Think about it: human beings are naturally drawn to “people just like them.” So even if our respective workplaces are comprised of diverse people, our tendency is to stay within the relative “safety” of our individual groups. Not diverse and inclusive at all.
My guest on FOWTalk today is Howard Ross. Howard is an author, social justice advocate and an expert on identifying and addressing Unconscious Bias. His latest book, Our Search for Belonging: How the Need for Connection Is Tearing Our Culture Apart, explores how to bridge our increasing polarized society.
Howard and I discussed a variety of things, including how the Whole Foods and Cracker Barrel Old Country Store factions fully exemplify our polarization—and other things that are happening in the workplace that we’re not paying close enough attention to.
We touched on:
- How we have turned our natural need for belonging into an unhealthy, destructive extreme.
- How our society is promoting segregation into “us” and “them” and the dangers that presents—for all of us.
- What the consequences might be if society continues to fuel divisiveness.
- What we can do, personally, to bridge these divides?
- What can businesses and organizations do to create inclusion and a true diverse culture within the organization, instead of just talking the talk.
The ‘so what’ of my conversation with Howard was fascinating to me, and I think it might be to you as well. Here’s what organizations need to consider as it relates to culture, training, and the relationships their employees have with one another. While many organizations provide skills training, it’s just as important that they provide training in interpersonal areas, such as communication, inclusion, and addressing unconscious bias. This can be done, and it doesn’t have to be an insurmountable challenge.
From Target’s “Courageous Conversations” workshops that engage employees of all backgrounds to talk about difficult issues, to Kaiser Permanente’s team culture, smart companies are exploring ways to build organizational structures that promote inclusivity. They are finding that working to remove bias in recruitment, hiring, onboarding and performance reviews pays off. They are challenging norms by asking courageous questions, embedding a positive organizational narrative around belonging and the value of diversity, and creating safe places to have dialogue around topics that are often difficult.
You can find Howard here (and I hope you will, he’s delightful):
If you’ve not yet subscribed to our Future of Work Talk webcast on YouTube, we hope you will, as we have many more fascinating conversations ahead.
Header image credit: Photo by rawpixel.com from Pexels
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Shelly Kramer: Hey everybody, this is Shelly Kramer. Welcome to this week’s episode of Future of Work Talk. Today I’m really excited, actually, about my guest today, because there’s so much going on in our country, in our world, I think that we’re probably more divided and more polarized than we have been in a very long time. At least longer than I can remember. And so, but not only is our political landscape divided and polarized, our workplace landscape is as well. And so that’s why I’m really excited about my guest today, Howard Ross. And Howard is an author and he’s a social justice expert, and he’s written a couple books we’re gonna … he’s actually written three books, we’re gonna talk about one of them specifically today. But Howard, welcome, it’s great to have you.
Howard Ross: Thanks so much, Shelly, it’s great to be with you, and happy new year.
Shelly Kramer: Same to you, same to you. You know, today’s January 10th, before we know it it’ll be Christmas again. It goes so quickly, it’s crazy.
Howard Ross: It seems to, yeah.
Shelly Kramer: It’s crazy. I think that’s a benefit of getting older, time goes so quickly. So Howard, tell us a little bit about you and your background so that we can get acquainted.
Howard Ross: Sure, thanks, Shelly. Yeah, as you mentioned, I’ve been a social justice advocate my whole life. I got involved in doing work in civil rights when I was a youngster and working on the anti-war movement, and with the farm workers’ boycott and the like. And that led me to, really, an appreciation of diversity, and at the same time, professionally I was trained as an organizational development proponent. And so doing work with organizations around culture change. And the two came together in the mid to late ’80s, when we had large numbers of women and people of color coming into organizations because of court orders, and creating environments in which people didn’t really know how to work together. And so I started doing consulting, and have now for about 35 years done consulting with organizations all over the world, helping them look at, how do we create more inclusive cultures?
And that led to my first book, Reinventing Diversity, which came out in 2011, which just generally talked about, how do we create cultures of inclusion? But then it became apparent to me that one of the real barriers that we had for getting where we wanted to go was unconscious bias, and the way we unconsciously make decisions. Which led to the second book, Everyday Bias, which came out in 2014, actually, right around the time Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson.
And the third book, the one we want to talk about today, Our Search for Belonging, really evolved out of my own looking at my reactions to what was happening in our culture. You know, I grew up in an environment in which we were really encouraged by our parent to understand other people’s points of view, even as we have strong points of view ourselves. And I don’t mean not taking a strong point of view. I mean being able to have a point of view but realizing it’s a point of view, and recognizing, trying to understand the legitimacy of the other side as well. And I found myself becoming more and more, being more and more difficult for me to do that. And so it just raised my curiosity as to, what is it about us as human beings that forms these tribes that we get into and warps our thinking? So much so that we can only see ourselves as right and the other as wrong, and hence Our Search for Belonging.
Shelly Kramer: Right. Well, fascinating, fascinating. So in our conversations, you shared an apt descriptor of one of the things that you’re talking about in your book, is the Whole Foods and the Cracker Barrel part of the equation. And how those brands are a perfect example of the kind of polarization that you’re talking about. Tell me about that.
Howard Ross: Yeah, sure. This is actually something that was a study that was first done by the Cook Political Report back in 1992. And just to preface it by saying most of us realize that the thing that you said in the introduction, that we are feeling more polarized than most of us can ever remember … I mean, for the most part we’ve lived in a bell curve society, where you had people on the extremes, but most people were willing to negotiate with or collaborate with people on the other side on an issue-by-issue basis. So I might disagree with you about civil rights but agree with you about gun rights, for example.
Shelly Kramer: Right.
Howard Ross: Now we’ve turned into this dumbbell curve society, where everything’s on the end and nothing in the middle. And the study you’re referring to really points to this. Not surprisingly for those people who know Whole Foods markets, they generally tend to be in liberal communities. Cracker Barrel family restaurants tend to be in more conservative communities. And so what the Cook Political Report started to do back in ’92 was to see how people voted in those communities, relative to the other side. And so when they first did it in 1992, and it was the Clinton-Bush election, what they found was there was about a 20% difference. In other words, about 20% more people in the liberal communities voted Democratic, and 20% more people in the conservative communities voted Republican.
They’ve tracked that every year, and every year it’s gone higher, to the point where in the last election, in the 2016 election, the gap is now 54%. So what that means is that we’re not only having strong political points of view, but we’re increasingly segregating based on where we’re living. Which means that not only do you have your friends on Facebook and like who agree with you, but it means that your neighbors tend to agree with you, the people you go to church with or synagogue or mosque tend to agree with you, the people who you get haircuts with agree with you, the people who you go to grocery stores agree with you. The people who your children go to school to. And what it speaks to, I think, which is so important right now, is to understand the bubbles that we’re living in. That we’re living in these contained bubbles and echo chambers, where we simply are around people who agree with us all the time, and that contributes to the calcification of our ideas.
Shelly Kramer: Yeah, and I think too, I think it also tends to … I think about my own community and interactions and conversations with people, and I think it also tends to make us personally maybe draw into ourselves a little bit more. Because you, when you’re operating … because … my community is, I live in the middle of Missouri, it’s a red state, I live in a city that’s fairly liberal city, as cities tend to be. But still plenty of conservatives and conservative liberals and conservative Republicans, Democrats, you know. But it is interesting, because it’s almost like, like you say, we used to occasionally be able to have conversations with … I’m a Democrat, my husband’s a Republican. And we used to joke about the fact that we existed simply to cancel one another’s votes out at the poll.
Howard Ross: Right.
Shelly Kramer: And he totally understood the issues that were important to me and why I voted the way I voted, and I understood the issues that were important to him and why he voted the way he voted. And we didn’t always agree, obviously, on candidates and outcomes of elections and all that sort of thing, but it was fine. And so what has happened, though, is that nothing’s fine any more. It’s like I hate you, and you hate me, and it’s terrible. And so I do see, when that translates into the workplace, that’s-
Howard Ross: Well, you know, I think it’s … I’m sorry.
Shelly Kramer: No, no, no, go ahead.
Howard Ross: I was gonna say first of all, I would say at least you’re not as bad as Kellyanne and George Conway,
Shelly Kramer: No, that is bizarre.
Howard Ross: It is pretty strange, isn’t it? But I do think that what you’re pointing to really ties into what I was talking about earlier, about these echo chambers that are forming. Because if you think about it, we go onto Facebook, those of us who are participating in social media, and people more and more, increasingly unfriend people who don’t agree with them. You go onto Twitter and you block people who don’t agree with you. And you get this sense that the entire world agrees with you. And one of the things I did for the book, because I do tend to come from the liberal side, was I went out and interviewed over 100 people who voted for President Trump. Because I really wanted to understand, and I have to say, it devastated my stereotypes. You know, I had this sense based on watching TV and the things I was seeing and the like, and I also watch multiple media sources, I have my news feed come from different media sources on purpose. Even though sometimes I feel like throwing something at the TV, it’s important to hear the other point of view, you know.
Shelly Kramer: I do that as well.
Howard Ross: Exactly right. And what I found in talking to people was that there are reasonable people, caring people, really good, decent people who just see the world very differently. And that doesn’t mean that I think they’re right, but there’s a big difference between seeing somebody as wrong in their point of view versus seeing somebody as wrong as a person. And I think this is the challenge. We’ve gone from being an issue-oriented society in terms of these things to an identity-oriented society. It’s no longer “I disagree with you about gun rights,” it’s now “You’re one of those kind of people.”
Shelly Kramer: Right.
Howard Ross: And at that point it’s very hard to find any negotiating space. And of course, we see that being played out this week with our government.
Shelly Kramer: Exactly. So tell me, you know, I mean, this may sort of be an obvious question, but tell me how society is kind of programming us down this path of the “us and the “them.”
Howard Ross: Well, I think first of all, as far as I’m concerned, as citizens of a democratic society, we have to take full responsibility for what we’ve got in front of us right now, because we’ve chosen this. Whether we chose it consciously, whether we got unintended consequences or not, we’ve chosen it. And I think that each of us as citizens has a responsibility to get ourselves unstuck. But I think when you look at, particularly, media and the differences in media now compared to what they were, for example, when I was growing up, actually, today’s my birthday, I’m 68 years old.
Shelly Kramer: Happy birthday.
Howard Ross: Thank you, so I grew up in a very different era. And we used to watch ABC, NBC, and CBS. And it was basically homogenized news. You know, it was all the same news, it was also, this was before the ethics, journalistic ethics standards were changed, the FCC changed the equal balance standards. It was considered to be unethical for a journalist to take a point of view on air. I mean, if you remember, when Walter Cronkite came out against the Vietnam War, it was seismic. In fact, Lyndon Johnson later said that when we lost Walter Cronkite, we lost the country. Nowadays, of course, we watch very different news. If you watch Fox and I watch MSNBC, or if you read the Huff Post and I read Breitbart, or we could go down the line, we’re getting not just completely different interpretations of the news, we’re getting actual completely different news. And this becomes really dangerous, because at some point you wonder if the sky is the same color in the other person’s world.
Shelly Kramer: Right. And what’s true and what’s not true, and your truth is different than my truth. It is very, it’s very challenging. And I do the same thing that you do, I really work hard to get … I’m a voracious consumer of news and information, and I’m constantly checking different sources or having conversations with people and trying to kind of get a different point of view. And I’m also really, really careful about … I have a big social media presence, I’m really careful about what information I share. And I have educated myself about, you know, this is a far left publication and this is a far right publication, and I try to … I try to share things that have been vetted and that aren’t too crazy out there. But not everybody has those … not everybody has that level of awareness. I’m not trying to say I’m something special or anything else, but I think that sometimes we see something, many people see something, and it’s true.
And I have some very, very intelligent, very successful friends, and sometimes I see some of the stuff that they’re sharing, and I’m like … and I’ll be the first person to pop in and go “Fact check this,” or whatever. But I think-
Howard Ross: Yeah, I get in trouble … I’m sorry, I was gonna say I know that I’m heading the right direction when I get in trouble with both my liberal and conservative friends sometimes for [inaudible 00:12:28] things.
Shelly Kramer: Right.
Howard Ross: I think that at the heart of what you’re saying, though, is one of the things that is so important for people to understand, which is that we think that we’re rational as human beings, but actually we’re not. Actually, we’re driven mostly by our emotions. And we’re far more rationalizing than we are rational. So if we put that in the context of seeking information like you’re talking about, we think that we seek information like scientists. In other words, we go around and kind of explore to find out what’s going on. But the truth is, we seek information much more like attorneys, looking for evidence to support our already-established point of view. And therefore it’s much easier for us to, if you’re on the left, much easier to believe something that feels a little strange if it comes from Rachel Maddow, and automatically to disregard something that doesn’t agree with you if it comes from Sean Hannity, and vice versa if you’re on the right.
Rather than to really explore and to understand that both, in their own way and obviously from different political points of view, are trying to make a point, and therefore cherry-picking information that tries to make that point.
Shelly Kramer: Right.
Howard Ross: And so I believe, I have very strong points of view, and I have no problem sharing those points of view, and I have strong evaluations and judgments about certain politicians and the like. That doesn’t mean that I don’t also honor the fact that there are good human beings on the other side that disagree with me. And I think sometimes people mistake the fact that they think that being civil means that you can’t have a strong point of view. Where for me, I think the two can coexist.
Shelly Kramer: Yeah, I agree. So we’ve talked about the state of the world and we touched on politics. How does all this impact organizational culture? What are we seeing in the workplace as it relates to this polarization?
Howard Ross: Well, first of all, I think that we have to recognize the power of belonging, and how important it is to us. You know, most everybody, I’m sure, who’s listening, has heard of Maslow’s hierarchy. Abraham Maslow, in 1943, created his now very famous model, which is usually depicted in a pyramid. And he basically said there’s certain needs you have to get met before other needs. So you get physiological needs, and then safety, and then belonging, and then self-esteem, and then finally self-actualization, or self-awareness. What we’re finding now through the neuro and cognitive science research is that Maslow was actually wrong, that belonging is our fundamental human need. And if you think about it, it makes perfect sense. I mean, what’s the most vulnerable time of the human being’s existence? A newborn baby. And if a newborn baby doesn’t belong to someone, they die, very simply. And so the first imprint that we get as human beings, for the first several years of our lives, “I exist because you exist.”
And this is one of the reasons why everybody who’s listening to us can think of a time when they went along with something they didn’t agree with just to get approval of a group, or they didn’t challenge an idea because they didn’t want to be shunned by a group. We have a tremendous need to belong. And so when we look at the workplace environment, a lot of people ask me sometimes in the context of diversity work, “Where does this term fit in?” And my dear friend and mentor, Dr. Johnetta Cole, has said that diversity’s being invited to the dance, and inclusion is actually being allowed to dance. I would say belonging is when you actually get to choose some of the music. That environments of belonging, where people really feel like they’re included, are environments in which people feel like what they have to say, their perspective, is valued, it’s important. It’s important at all levels of the organization. It’s not just about having numbers there, but it’s about having a voice and being listened to.
It’s about being considered from different perspectives so that, for example, as a man dealing with what’s going on now with the MeToo movement, which has been just this remarkable, courageous outpouring of people, but also can go to extremes sometimes, like anything else in life. For me to understand it, it’s so important for me to listen to what women have to say about that before making determinations about how it’s affecting me. It doesn’t mean that I’m not entitled to a point of view, but my point of view has to be somewhat informed by people who are being affected by it in a different way. And the same is true about race. As a person of color, people have to understand how it impacts people of different racial groups, or as a white person, how it impacts people of color. For those of us who are heterosexual, to understand how dynamics in the workplace impact LGBT people in ways that we may not even realize.
Not because we don’t care, but because people have a tendency to see things from their own point of view. You know, the great example that I give for this in our society today, the three words Black Lives Matter, which are three of the most controversial words in America today. And we know that we have these two very strong points of view in our society about these three words. But what people aren’t paying attention to is that when we see those three words, we’re actually not reacting to three words. We’re reacting to four words, but the fourth word is invisible and it’s different for each group. You see, some people, when they see Black Lives Matter, see the words “Only Black Lives Matter.” Some people, when they see those same three words, see “Black Lives Matter Too.”
And which of those perspectives you come from completely shapes how you react to those three words. But we rarely discuss that. And so the more we get this stuff consciously up to the surface, the more we can begin to create environments where we can understand each other enough to try to find ways to meet each other and compromise.
Shelly Kramer: That makes perfect sense. So what can businesses and organizations do to create an environment and a culture that’s inclusive and tackle these issues?
Howard Ross: One thing is to be really clear what direction we’re going as an organization, what we’re here for. And how the things that we do and choices we make are supported by values that are very clear in the organization. We moved, sadly, societally, into a circumstance where the ends tend to justify the means for most people. And in philosophy they call this a deontological approach, and that is when you come from your values being important regardless how they play out. So for example, using a political example. I’m completely on the other side politically from somebody like Ann Coulter. I completely disagree with her. And yet I will stand and fight for her right to speak, because I think freedom of speech is important regardless of who’s the one that’s speaking, you know.
Shelly Kramer: I agree.
Howard Ross: We’re getting to a point now where people say “No, this person can speak but that person can’t speak.” Without even realizing the danger that that is for our society. I think similarly in the workplace, we can create ways where we say very clear to people, “These are the values that govern us. These are the ways that we make decisions, and we’re gonna constantly come back to these tried-and-true ways of making decisions.” You know, if we look at some of the great organizations over time, Hewlett-Packard just popped into my mind, the Hewlett-Packard way was sort of one way of looking at that. Organizations that have very clear values orientation tend to be the ones that sustain themselves over time. Sometimes some people may not like the choices that are made because of those values, sometimes those same people may support the choices that are made because of those very same values.
But the values are what drive us, rather than our visceral reactions. And then the third piece is, of course, is really important, or a third piece, I should say, which is really important, is that we create a space of having open, courageous dialogue around these issues in a constructive way. And there’s some people around, for example, Caroline Wanga, who’s the chief diversity officer at Target, or James Momon, who’s the chief diversity officer at General Foods, are conducting sessions with their employees where they bring them together and give them a forum to have healthy, constructive conversations about some difficult issues of the day. They don’t necessarily resolve or come to agreement, but they learn to respect each other and each other’s right to speak.
And when we get to that place, then we’re not so fearful about these conversations, because we understand that we know how to handle them. We know how to have those conversations in productive ways.
Shelly Kramer: Yeah, and I think sometimes, I can give an example, you know, we don’t know what we don’t know, and we, as humans, tend to operate within the realm of “I like this, so everybody else must too.”
Howard Ross: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Many people are saying …
Shelly Kramer: But my example is, I was in a meeting seven or eight years ago with a client, and there were 12 of us around the table. Large global engineering consulting firm, and we were working on a campaign, and we were talking about how we were going to communicate with people. And somebody wanted to … somebody wanted to only communicate by email, and somebody else wanted to only communicate by way of social media, and somebody else wanted to do only a video. And one of the things that I said is that, you know, we all like different things. And for instance, I think you’re awesome, and you have a great radio voice, and you are … so you would be a fantastic person on a podcast. Obviously. But you know what? If the only thing you do is do a podcast, I’m never gonna find you and I’m never gonna listen to you, because I don’t listen to podcasts.
Howard Ross: Right, right.
Shelly Kramer: But if you write and something you write, or you end up in my email box, or something like that comes across my field of vision … So my point in that example is, we like what we like, whether it’s email, or I want my communication by way of text message, or I want to listen to podcasts, and so sometimes it’s sitting in the room and hearing somebody else go “Howard, I love you, but I’m never gonna listen to your podcast. And here’s why.
Howard Ross: Right.
Shelly Kramer: So a different example, but I think that it applies to the issue of inclusion and having those conversations, because it just doesn’t even occur to us.
Howard Ross: Well, Shelly, I think what you’re speaking to actually speaks directly to the heart of why belonging could be such a powerful positive influence in organizations. Because if you take what you’re talking about relative to various different media, and you put that into a conversation about what different customers may need, and if I’ve got an organization that’s very diverse, and the people who represent the diversity of my community are in my organization and their voices are listened to, and I’m paying attention to them and I’m drawing from them information, help me, the product that I produce for me client base is likely to be much broader and more diverse, and therefore speak to more clients than if a bunch of people up top in the organization, which usually is white male, in most cases, a bunch of white guys are sitting around by themselves trying to figure it out, even with the best of intentions.
And I’m not talking about overt racism or hatred or anything like that. I’m just talking about blind spots that we have, because we see the world from a different perspective. And so the very thing that you’re talking about speaks to exactly why it’s in the best interest of organizations to be more inclusive, to have a greater sense of belonging. And it’s not just external, by the way. It’s also a function of, if I’m creating internal policies in my organization that impact my employees, and I have a broader range of employees to get input from in coming up to what those policies will be, it’s very likely that it’s gonna meet the needs of more people than if I sit in some ivory tower office with a group of people who look like me and say “Let’s do this.”
Shelly Kramer: Right.
Howard Ross: Because we don’t know what we don’t know.
Shelly Kramer: Well, and we’re also dealing with an incredibly, a changing workforce. We’ve got the millennials, who aren’t young any more, we’ve got Gen Z, we’ve got people who, you know, you and I are old enough that we came up during a time when you kind of sold yourself to the company, and there was nothing that you wouldn’t sacrifice, at least in my life, ’cause I was making my way up the corporate ladder. And today’s younger generation of workers aren’t quite so interested in selling their souls so easily. And so you’ve got a diverse workforce, a changing workforce, you’ve got a very tight job market. And so if you’re focused on talent recruiting, if you’re focused on talent retention, your job is harder than ever before. So I think it is important to have these conversations and to create a culture that walks the walk and talks the talk when it comes to this.
And as you said, all of it, I don’t care what you sell, I don’t care if you sell widgets, I don’t care if you sell beauty products, it doesn’t matter. Whether you’re a B2B company or a B2C company, your people buy what it is you sell.
Howard Ross: That’s right. And I think, you know, it’s really interesting, because I think a lot of times as human beings, it’s more important to us to be right than to be successful. And I look and I see people’s points of view these days, and when I sometimes talk about the work, people come up to me and they say “Well, how can you even waste your time?” I can’t tell you how many people on my side of the political [inaudible 00:25:34] say “Why did you waste your time talking to all these people who voted the other way?” And my response is, first of all, just to understand. But secondly, if I’m gonna try to convince people to look at the world differently, it starts when I understand how they’re now looking at the world. If I don’t understand how they’re now looking at the world, the chances of my speaking to them in a way that they can listen is almost zero.
It’s a little bit like when you go into the mall and you’re looking for the shoe store. What’s the first thing you do? You look for that map that says “You are here.” Because until you know where you are on that map, the map is useless to you. And so what I try to get people to see is that this is a practical, as well as a philosophical, point of view to take. I’m not just saying “Let’s all be nice to each other.” I’m saying let’s find a way to understand each other so that we can work and live together. Because like it or not, we’re codependent in this organization called the United States that we live in.
Shelly Kramer: Right. Well, and not to mention, it would be incredibly difficult to write a book on this topic without stepping outside your own biases. You know what I’m saying? You have to have those conversations with other people.
Howard Ross: I guess.
Shelly Kramer: You have to, I mean, I think … I don’t know.
Howard Ross: Although you’d be surprised how many people don’t.
Shelly Kramer: Yeah, I’m sure, I’m sure. Well, Howard, this has really been a fascinating discussion. Thanks so much for taking time to join me today, and for those of you listening, Howard’s latest book, again, is Our Search for Belonging: How the Need for Connection is Tearing Our Culture Apart. I will include a link to it in the show notes for the show, and I really do appreciate the time you took today. I’ve learned a lot.
Howard Ross: Thank you so much, I really appreciate it.
Shelly Kramer: And I can’t read your … I haven’t yet had a chance to read your book, but I will.
Howard Ross: All right, great. Maybe we could talk again after that.
Shelly Kramer: That would be great. And you have a wonderful birthday, thanks for-
Howard Ross: Thank you so much. Take care.
Shelly Kramer: Thanks for joining me.
Howard Ross: Bye-bye now.
Shelly Kramer: Bye-bye.
If you’re watching or listening and have a topic you’d like covered and/or would like to be a guest, send me an email at shelly at broadsuite dot com.
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