By Arifa Syed, Senior Consultant
Today’s era is marked by deep divisions and polarised opinions and the role of leadership in fostering inclusivity within the workplace has never been more vital. The pervasiveness of social and political polarisation does not stop at the office door. Instead, it weaves into the very fabric of our daily interactions, impacting both the mental wellbeing of employees and the overall health of an organisation. As leaders, it is crucial to possess a nuanced understanding of the impacts of polarisation and a commitment to creating a respectful and mutually respectful environment to navigate these turbulent waters. Leaders cannot afford to detach themselves from the context that deeply affects their people.
But how can this be made possible? Let’s delve in.
The Impact of Polarisation in the Workplace
At its core, polarisation is the division of a society or group into starkly contrasting factions, often leading to an ‘us vs. them’ mentality. Such divisions can erode trust, impede collaboration, and create a toxic environment, ultimately leading to negative impacts such as trauma, discrimination, and, in extreme cases, aggression at work. Harvard Business Review in 2020 highlighted the importance of addressing social and political issues proactively on time to maintain morale and productivity. Not speaking up can lead to leaders being perceived as inauthentic or hypocritical.
Moreover, prevailing polarisation can exacerbate mental health issues at work. The American Psychological Association’s 2019 survey revealed that over 60% of American adults identified work as a significant source of stress, exacerbated by a divisive political climate. The stress of navigating a divided society, and hence, the workplace, can lead to anxiety, depression, and burnout, particularly when employees feel that they must hide or suppress their beliefs to avoid conflict, judgement, and repercussions.
Creating a Safe Space for Respect and Understanding
The key to countering the negative impacts of polarisation lies in fostering a culture of respect, dignity, and mutual understanding. This involves creating a safe space where everyone feels valued, heard, and respected, regardless of their backgrounds. A space where humanity is given the centre stage and hurtful actions and behaviours are addressed proactively to ensure that everyone feels safe. Such an environment encourages open dialogue, where differences are not just tolerated but managed productively through opportunities for conversations, learning, and growth.
To achieve this, leaders must first lead by example. Acknowledging issues, demonstrating empathy, actively listening to diverse perspectives, and showing a willingness to engage in difficult conversations sets a tone for the entire organisation. When leaders engage in a dialogue over challenging topics with acceptance and understanding of differing perspectives, employees feel encouraged to model that behaviour and hold space for each other.
Here are some suggestions from In Diverse Company to set this in motion.
1. Promoting Open Communication: Foster a culture of trust, where employees can express their views in a respectful and constructive manner. Establish clear communication challenges and norms that support the free exchange of ideas while maintaining mutual respect and dignity for all.
2. Setting and Enforcing Boundaries: While open dialogue is essential, it is equally important to establish boundaries. This includes zero tolerance for harassment, discrimination, or any behaviour that undermines the dignity of others.
3. Building a Culture of Empathy: Foster a culture where empathy is valued, understood, and practiced. This can be achieved through team-building activities and reflection circles encouraging staff to step into each other’s shoes.
4. Encouraging Diverse Perspectives: Make space for diverging and diverse viewpoints to be expressed within the boundaries of mutual respect and dignity. This can involve soliciting input from all levels of the organisation and creating a culture where people are open to changing their views after dialogue.
5. Providing Mental Health Support: Recognise the mental toll of a polarised environment and offer support. This could include access to counselling services, mental health days, and creating a space where mental health is a reality, is destigmatised, and openly discussed.
Leading inclusively in divisive times is not just challenging, but it is a huge responsibility that leaders must fulfil with accountability. It is also an opportunity to build a stronger, more resilient organisation where every individual matters, feels valued, and empowered. Leaders should equip themselves with the skills to not only navigate the currents of polarisation but also set their organisations on a course of long-term sustainability by fostering a culture of respect, dignity, reflection and togetherness along with differences.