Michael Eichenwald is a leader on ethical issues at LRN, a New York City-based behavior, leadership and compliance firm.
During America’s last period of titanic social polarization during the 1960s, talk about Vietnam, the pill, Watergate and other inflammatory topics certainly occurred around office water coolers and on factory floors, but for the most part, there was agreement that open discussion of these matters was best left outside the workplace. Sold as the need to get along to enable “productivity,” the clause of the social contract that erected a wall between discourses deemed appropriate at home versus those suited for work was often embraced out of a desire to keep a job or get promoted. Also, it didn’t hurt that most workers looked like—or believed they shared the values of—the white men in the corner offices.
Today as we approach one of the most hotly contested U.S. presidential races in American history, workplaces are different, and not solely because of the broader diversity of the people in them. Just as bosses are asking more of people—that they always be connected, work ever more collaboratively, and advocate for their employers online—employees are demanding the freedom to bring their full selves to the job each day. A new mindset, ascribed to the millennial generation but shared by many older workers, has dramatically altered employee expectations and demeanor. More and more, people are looking for a workplace where they can make a contribution that reflects who they are, an environment where they can express their deepest beliefs and feel a more profound and human connection with colleagues.
These aspirations fly in the face of mid-20th century corporate America’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” conception of workplace harmony. Rather than avoiding discussions of policy, identity or purpose, growing numbers of workers can’t imagine coming to work and not sharing their opinions about gay rights, economic inequality, #BlackLivesMatter, immigration, abortion and a host of other complex, hot-button topics. This is particularly so in the days after huge news events like Brexit or the murder of police officers, when even those who prefer to keep politics out of the office will quickly find that a single social media post is sufficient to telegraph their beliefs on immigration or gun control to the person in the next cubicle. Moreover, many well-known corporate leaders—from Apple’s Tim Cook to Berkshire Hathaway’s Warren Buffet—regularly opine about all manner of cultural and political issues, further emboldening others to share their views.
But if the world has changed dramatically in these respects, employers have not adjusted quickly enough. Today’s 1970s-era diversity workshops and sensitivity trainings, which offer advice about tolerating others’ viewpoints, appreciating others’ cultures and respecting others personal spaces, do little to help real people interested in real exchanges navigate through conflict. Workers at all levels are finding themselves at a normative crossroads, wondering how much they can say, whom they can say it to and how to respond when others offer their own personal beliefs. Much as e-mail continues to rewrite communication norms, the passion of our political, social and cultural moment is rewriting the expectations and obligations for the way employees behave at work..
But these changes have been slow to show up in conduct codes. Instead, most employers continue to leave it to workers to fend for themselves as to how they should discuss matters their parents never would have imagined raising in polite conversation, let alone on the job. The reluctance to take on this challenge is understandable. This particular rearrangement cuts right to the core of professionalism for many of today’s CEOs and other organizational leaders—even those who are willing to try generally find the challenge daunting. Consider Starbucks’ attempts last year to foster workplace dialogue—via its “Race Together” initiative—which, while well-meaning, was both poorly-designed and received overwhelmingly backlash.
Of course, most corporate leaders did not scale to their perches by discussing racial tensions or border walls or transgender rights with co-workers. They got there with a singular focus on achievement. But today, in these times of activated moral engagement, leaders must help to equip employees with the tools to handle—and ideally grow from—the tension that comes from the surfacing of emotions or articulation of ideas that run in conflict with their own.
The first step for any organization is to address the problem head on; that is, to begin the conversation about how to have conversations on difficult topics. Such talk will itself nurture the kinds of behaviors that build cohesive teams—listening and tolerance, yes, but also thoughtful engagement; reasoned debate; effective presentation and persuasion; and conflict resolution and problem-solving. The companies that will win in this century—values-based, purpose-inspired organizations led with moral authority and operating with a set of core principles and social imperatives— are populated by fully invested employees who bring their full selves to work.
Fostering such dialogue—setting the context for it, modeling the behaviors that enable it, and helping to develop and build the capacities to engage in it—will not be the easiest thing for leaders to do. But as the landscape of the workplace continues to shift, it is both the smart and right thing to do.