4 leadership strategies to foster inclusive workplaces in polarised times


As workforce polarisation grows, how should leaders adapt their approach to fostering inclusive workplaces and aligning their teams?

In an increasingly divided world, fostering inclusive workplaces is more challenging and more crucial than ever before. 

According to Edelman’s 2023 Trust Barometer, which surveyed more than 1150 Australians, Australia is currently considered “moderately polarised” and on the brink of “severe polarisation”. Nearly half of Australians (45 per cent) feel the nation is more divided now than at any other time in history.

When this polarisation creeps into our workplaces, it can create a plethora of psychosocial risks, including interpersonal conflict, negative stereotyping and poor communication. 

“The risk is that people form themselves into these binary oppositional groups, and there’s this mentality of, ‘If you’re if you’re not with me, then you’re against me,’” says Dr. Juliet Bourke, Professor of Practice at UNSW Business School and upcoming speaker at AHRI’s National Convention and Exhibition in August.

“But that’s not what the world is really like. There’s a broad spectrum of views. And part of the skill is not getting sucked into that narrative, but to stand back and understand the individuals on a broader spectrum.”

Bourke, who has researched and written extensively on inclusive leadership practices, spoke with HRM to discuss the most effective strategies for leaders to foster inclusive workplaces within a seemingly polarised society.

1. Recognise the spectrum of attitudes towards DEI

An essential step in ensuring that polarisation does not damage organisational culture is engaging employees in diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts. However, Bourke stresses that there is no one right way to engage employees in these conversations, given that employees can hold vastly different attitudes and opinions on the subject. 

To help leaders decide the right way to communicate with employees about DEI, Bourke has broken down employees’ typical attitudes towards DEI into a spectrum of six archetypes.

“At one end, there is an oppositional response. That person brings a level of anger or negative emotion to the topic. At the other end is the person who’s really passionate and positively disruptive,” she says.

The archetypes she has formulated are as follows:

  • Oppositional: These employees are strongly against DEI, often expressing anger or negative emotions towards it. They might feel that they are losing privilege or being left behind.
  • Disengaged: This archetype is indifferent to DEI. Their eyes may glaze over when DEI is discussed, and they’re unlikely to attend events or workshops. They may say DEI is not “their thing”.
  • Ambivalent (two types): In Bourke’s view, there are two forms of ambivalence to DEI. The first type is somewhat supportive of DEI, but fears making a misstep and therefore remains silent. The other is fatigued – while they may once have been committed, they now lack the energy to engage.
  • Supportive, but not leading: These employees have a fairly positive attitude to DEI and are willing to follow others in their efforts, but don’t take the initiative themselves.
  • Champions: This archetype is passionate about DEI, actively contributes to the organisation’s inclusion efforts and pushes boundaries in a positive way.

The goal for leaders, says Bourke, is to meet people where they’re at and move them up the engagement curve. Understanding the spectrum above is crucial to matching the message to the person, since different archetypes will require a different approach. 

She also notes that while employees on the champion side of the spectrum are already fully engaged in DEI efforts, this does not mean leaders can ‘set and forget’ this cohort; they still need to ensure the efforts of these employees are in fact contributing to a more inclusive workplace.

“Sometimes when people are champions, they can also be tone deaf. And they can be like bulldozers. I don’t think that that’s helpful either,” she says. “So leaders have a role to play in keeping champions connected and curious.”

On an individual level, employees are also influenced in different ways by different means of communication. 

Bourke suggests thinking of information in terms of content that engages the head, heart or hands. For example, some employees will be more affected by hard facts and data, while others will be swayed by heartfelt stories with real emotions. Others learn from doing and want to be guided on the actions they should take. The trick to influencing others to be more engaged in DEI is understanding the person’s archetype and the type of information that is most suited to the person.

She also says that leaders should ask themselves whether they are the best person to deliver that message, or if there is another person who is more suited, perhaps because they have a closer, stronger and more trusted relationship.

“I would say to leaders, step back from the black and white and see [your people] through a lens of colour,” says Bourke. “See the person in front of you with a bit more nuance, think about who influences them and [the way] you’re trying to influence them, and experiment with that.”

2. Facilitate open dialogue

Once leaders have established the most effective ways to communicate with their teams about DEI, a crucial next step is to ensure employees feel safe to express their perspectives at work.

Of course, facilitating open dialogue in a workplace where employees have polarised views creates the potential for conflict, meaning leaders may be reluctant to initiate these difficult conversations. However, allowing polarisation to simmer unaddressed is not conducive to a psychosocially safe work environment.

“I would say to leaders, step back from the black and white and see [your people] through a lens of colour.” – Dr. Juliet Bourke, Professor of Practice at UNSW Business School

In facilitating conversations between employees with differing views, one strategy Bourke has found particularly effective is to try and establish common ground between the parties involved to help them understand each other’s perspectives.

“This strategy is about bringing together those two people who are opposed and saying, ‘Well, what do we agree upon?’ And it is unlikely that you won’t find some commonality.”

For example, she says, while there may be polarised views on current geopolitical issues when it comes to religion or political ideology, employees on both sides are likely to agree that family is important and that peace is the end goal. 

Finding this common ground not only helps prevent conflict, but can also help bust misconceptions employees might hold about their colleagues.

“If we have an open conversation and get an empathetic understanding of the other person, it’s harder to hold onto the stereotypical view you went into the conversation with because you realise that person is a person, a whole person, not a cardboard cutout picture.” 

3. Demonstrate curiosity

When facilitating open dialogue among their teams, it’s important for leaders to model the curious mindset that will help employees understand each other’s points of view.

To demonstrate this curiosity, Bourke suggests leaders take part in regular ‘perspective taking’. Within the workplace, this might look like talking directly with employees about their unique experiences, showing genuine interest in their perspectives and asking thoughtful questions to gain insight and build stronger connections.

Leaders can also immerse themselves in other cultures and communities outside of the workplace to gain a better understanding of a particular cohort’s perspective, she adds. This could be as simple as exploring books and films from other cultures or attending community events.

It’s also important for leaders to demonstrate healthy curiosity about themselves.

“The skill of self-reflection [is important],” says Bourke. “As a starting point, [ask yourself], ‘How am I coming across? How am I influencing this conversation, [maybe] in ways that I didn’t intend?’”

Given that it can be hard for anyone to view their strengths and weaknesses objectively, Bourke suggests leaders get input from trusted people in their circles on where their communication styles might show room for improvement.

“You can also look at other people whom you admire,” she says. “If you look at someone and think, ‘I want to be like that person,’ then ask, ‘What is it they are doing that I want [to mimic]?’”

4. Prioritise self-care

Dealing with a polarised workforce in a turbulent business environment can take its toll on HR’s, managers’ and leaders’ wellbeing. 

These difficulties are reflected in multiple research reports from the past two years showing that managers and leaders are experiencing higher levels of burnout than their junior counterparts.

This is an important issue to address since, according to Bourke, inclusive leadership is only possible when leaders have the space and balance in their own lives to approach this complex issue with energy and curiosity.

“For me, when I come across those challenges, I make sure I balance it in my life with situations and people who give me energy because sometimes dealing with entrenched resistance is very draining.

“Giving yourself time to regenerate and [participating in] positive activities is a way to support yourself to be an inclusive leader.”


Dr. Juliet Bourke will be speaking on inclusive coworker behaviours at AHRI’s National Convention and Exhibition in August. Sign up today to hear from Juliet and other experts, including Seth Godin, Dr Pippa Grange and more.


 

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Jim
Jim
28 days ago

After 52 years in the workforce, including 30 years in HR, I’ve seen, and been involved in, a lot of DEI initiatives. It’s easy to put DEI critics into negatively biased boxes as Dr Bourke has done, but from my observation there would be a lot more support for DEI if programs weren’t so often hijacked by woke Social Justice Warriors furthering their own biases and their own their particular objectives. Many corporate programs are concocted by HR practitioners driven by the agenda of government agencies established to conduct social re-engineering to appease certain societal groups, rather than what will… Read more »

More on HRM

4 leadership strategies to foster inclusive workplaces in polarised times


As workforce polarisation grows, how should leaders adapt their approach to fostering inclusive workplaces and aligning their teams?

In an increasingly divided world, fostering inclusive workplaces is more challenging and more crucial than ever before. 

According to Edelman’s 2023 Trust Barometer, which surveyed more than 1150 Australians, Australia is currently considered “moderately polarised” and on the brink of “severe polarisation”. Nearly half of Australians (45 per cent) feel the nation is more divided now than at any other time in history.

When this polarisation creeps into our workplaces, it can create a plethora of psychosocial risks, including interpersonal conflict, negative stereotyping and poor communication. 

“The risk is that people form themselves into these binary oppositional groups, and there’s this mentality of, ‘If you’re if you’re not with me, then you’re against me,’” says Dr. Juliet Bourke, Professor of Practice at UNSW Business School and upcoming speaker at AHRI’s National Convention and Exhibition in August.

“But that’s not what the world is really like. There’s a broad spectrum of views. And part of the skill is not getting sucked into that narrative, but to stand back and understand the individuals on a broader spectrum.”

Bourke, who has researched and written extensively on inclusive leadership practices, spoke with HRM to discuss the most effective strategies for leaders to foster inclusive workplaces within a seemingly polarised society.

1. Recognise the spectrum of attitudes towards DEI

An essential step in ensuring that polarisation does not damage organisational culture is engaging employees in diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts. However, Bourke stresses that there is no one right way to engage employees in these conversations, given that employees can hold vastly different attitudes and opinions on the subject. 

To help leaders decide the right way to communicate with employees about DEI, Bourke has broken down employees’ typical attitudes towards DEI into a spectrum of six archetypes.

“At one end, there is an oppositional response. That person brings a level of anger or negative emotion to the topic. At the other end is the person who’s really passionate and positively disruptive,” she says.

The archetypes she has formulated are as follows:

  • Oppositional: These employees are strongly against DEI, often expressing anger or negative emotions towards it. They might feel that they are losing privilege or being left behind.
  • Disengaged: This archetype is indifferent to DEI. Their eyes may glaze over when DEI is discussed, and they’re unlikely to attend events or workshops. They may say DEI is not “their thing”.
  • Ambivalent (two types): In Bourke’s view, there are two forms of ambivalence to DEI. The first type is somewhat supportive of DEI, but fears making a misstep and therefore remains silent. The other is fatigued – while they may once have been committed, they now lack the energy to engage.
  • Supportive, but not leading: These employees have a fairly positive attitude to DEI and are willing to follow others in their efforts, but don’t take the initiative themselves.
  • Champions: This archetype is passionate about DEI, actively contributes to the organisation’s inclusion efforts and pushes boundaries in a positive way.

The goal for leaders, says Bourke, is to meet people where they’re at and move them up the engagement curve. Understanding the spectrum above is crucial to matching the message to the person, since different archetypes will require a different approach. 

She also notes that while employees on the champion side of the spectrum are already fully engaged in DEI efforts, this does not mean leaders can ‘set and forget’ this cohort; they still need to ensure the efforts of these employees are in fact contributing to a more inclusive workplace.

“Sometimes when people are champions, they can also be tone deaf. And they can be like bulldozers. I don’t think that that’s helpful either,” she says. “So leaders have a role to play in keeping champions connected and curious.”

On an individual level, employees are also influenced in different ways by different means of communication. 

Bourke suggests thinking of information in terms of content that engages the head, heart or hands. For example, some employees will be more affected by hard facts and data, while others will be swayed by heartfelt stories with real emotions. Others learn from doing and want to be guided on the actions they should take. The trick to influencing others to be more engaged in DEI is understanding the person’s archetype and the type of information that is most suited to the person.

She also says that leaders should ask themselves whether they are the best person to deliver that message, or if there is another person who is more suited, perhaps because they have a closer, stronger and more trusted relationship.

“I would say to leaders, step back from the black and white and see [your people] through a lens of colour,” says Bourke. “See the person in front of you with a bit more nuance, think about who influences them and [the way] you’re trying to influence them, and experiment with that.”

2. Facilitate open dialogue

Once leaders have established the most effective ways to communicate with their teams about DEI, a crucial next step is to ensure employees feel safe to express their perspectives at work.

Of course, facilitating open dialogue in a workplace where employees have polarised views creates the potential for conflict, meaning leaders may be reluctant to initiate these difficult conversations. However, allowing polarisation to simmer unaddressed is not conducive to a psychosocially safe work environment.

“I would say to leaders, step back from the black and white and see [your people] through a lens of colour.” – Dr. Juliet Bourke, Professor of Practice at UNSW Business School

In facilitating conversations between employees with differing views, one strategy Bourke has found particularly effective is to try and establish common ground between the parties involved to help them understand each other’s perspectives.

“This strategy is about bringing together those two people who are opposed and saying, ‘Well, what do we agree upon?’ And it is unlikely that you won’t find some commonality.”

For example, she says, while there may be polarised views on current geopolitical issues when it comes to religion or political ideology, employees on both sides are likely to agree that family is important and that peace is the end goal. 

Finding this common ground not only helps prevent conflict, but can also help bust misconceptions employees might hold about their colleagues.

“If we have an open conversation and get an empathetic understanding of the other person, it’s harder to hold onto the stereotypical view you went into the conversation with because you realise that person is a person, a whole person, not a cardboard cutout picture.” 

3. Demonstrate curiosity

When facilitating open dialogue among their teams, it’s important for leaders to model the curious mindset that will help employees understand each other’s points of view.

To demonstrate this curiosity, Bourke suggests leaders take part in regular ‘perspective taking’. Within the workplace, this might look like talking directly with employees about their unique experiences, showing genuine interest in their perspectives and asking thoughtful questions to gain insight and build stronger connections.

Leaders can also immerse themselves in other cultures and communities outside of the workplace to gain a better understanding of a particular cohort’s perspective, she adds. This could be as simple as exploring books and films from other cultures or attending community events.

It’s also important for leaders to demonstrate healthy curiosity about themselves.

“The skill of self-reflection [is important],” says Bourke. “As a starting point, [ask yourself], ‘How am I coming across? How am I influencing this conversation, [maybe] in ways that I didn’t intend?’”

Given that it can be hard for anyone to view their strengths and weaknesses objectively, Bourke suggests leaders get input from trusted people in their circles on where their communication styles might show room for improvement.

“You can also look at other people whom you admire,” she says. “If you look at someone and think, ‘I want to be like that person,’ then ask, ‘What is it they are doing that I want [to mimic]?’”

4. Prioritise self-care

Dealing with a polarised workforce in a turbulent business environment can take its toll on HR’s, managers’ and leaders’ wellbeing. 

These difficulties are reflected in multiple research reports from the past two years showing that managers and leaders are experiencing higher levels of burnout than their junior counterparts.

This is an important issue to address since, according to Bourke, inclusive leadership is only possible when leaders have the space and balance in their own lives to approach this complex issue with energy and curiosity.

“For me, when I come across those challenges, I make sure I balance it in my life with situations and people who give me energy because sometimes dealing with entrenched resistance is very draining.

“Giving yourself time to regenerate and [participating in] positive activities is a way to support yourself to be an inclusive leader.”


Dr. Juliet Bourke will be speaking on inclusive coworker behaviours at AHRI’s National Convention and Exhibition in August. Sign up today to hear from Juliet and other experts, including Seth Godin, Dr Pippa Grange and more.


 

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2 Comments
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Jim
Jim
28 days ago

After 52 years in the workforce, including 30 years in HR, I’ve seen, and been involved in, a lot of DEI initiatives. It’s easy to put DEI critics into negatively biased boxes as Dr Bourke has done, but from my observation there would be a lot more support for DEI if programs weren’t so often hijacked by woke Social Justice Warriors furthering their own biases and their own their particular objectives. Many corporate programs are concocted by HR practitioners driven by the agenda of government agencies established to conduct social re-engineering to appease certain societal groups, rather than what will… Read more »

More on HRM