Research shows Australians are more divided on social issues than ever. In the workplace, this polarisation can be harmful for employees and business growth alike. Thankfully, there’s an antidote.
Our world is becoming increasingly polarised. Our differing opinions, ethics and values can sometimes seem as though they’re from opposite ends of the earth. Our workplaces are becoming increasingly polarised too, which creates immense challenges for managers and HR.
Navigating and addressing these chasms is both a responsibility and an opportunity.
Edelman’s latest Trust Barometer, which surveyed over 32,000 people globally, including more than 1150 in Australia, shows that our country is “moderately polarised” but close to being “in danger of severe polarisation”. It reports almost half of Australians (45 per cent) think our nation is more divided today than at any point in history.
Edelman cites wealth disparity (72 per cent), the media (51 per cent) and government leaders (49 per cent) as the main forces driving polarisation.
The report also found that polarisation increases prejudice and discrimination, slows economic progress and reduces our ability to address societal challenges.
Worryingly, over half of people (54 per cent) feel our country’s social fabric is too weak to serve as a future foundation for unity and common purpose. Only a quarter (24 per cent) would help a person in need who strongly disagreed with their own view on a societal issue, while only 19 per cent would be willing to work alongside them.
When polarisation seeps into workplaces, it can cause in-group favouritism and out-group prejudice (negative stereotyping of those in other groups), leading to a harmful us-versus-them mentality, says Ruchi Sinha, Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour at the University of South Australia Business School.
“Sub-groups can drive distrust, break collaboration and hamper decision-making,” she says. “They can also hamper knowledge sharing and innovative problem- solving, eventually hurting team productivity.”
Responsibility to act
Current topics of debate and potential polarisation in Australian workplaces include our housing crisis, our new work-from-home culture, the resignation of Indigenous ABC journalist Stan Grant over claims of racism, and the clash between religious expression and LGBTIQ+ rights.
While diverse viewpoints on these topics can be a source of innovation and progress, they become problematic when they lead to intolerance and hostility, says Lisa Annese, CEO of Diversity Council Australia.
“There’s a limit to the belief that all opinions are valid. And the limit, for workplaces, is when the expression of your belief harms or hurts someone else.
“The inclusive way forward is focusing not so much on what people think, but on how they behave. If you are expressing opinions that are discriminatory based on your religious beliefs, there might be a clash between that expression and someone else’s rights.
“Organisations can be very frightened of dealing with that head-on. But it’s really important they do. Employers are important members of the community with power.”
Edelman’s data backs this up. It shows that despite growing polarisation in Australia, the majority of us (75 per cent) trust our employer.
Jen Overbeck, Associate Professor of Management at Melbourne Business School, says while many organisations have embraced the idea of diversity, some choose not to weigh in on debate to keep the peace, which may explain the high level of trust.
But avoiding debate can also be risky.
“There’s starting to be an active demand by both consumers and workers that businesses reflect their own values, particularly as younger people and people from historically marginalised backgrounds gain more power in workplaces.”
Research backs this up. In a 2019 Gartner study of more than 30,000 people worldwide, 87 per cent of employees said organisations should take a public position on societal issues relevant to their business, while 74 per cent said they should take a position on issues even when they aren’t directly relevant.
“Remaining on the fence [can be] a recipe for having a weak brand, and not inspiring loyalty and passion for your business,” says Overbeck.
Creating a tolerant and receptive workplace where people are willing to be open and consider differing perspectives can be harder to achieve than it sounds, says Annese.
“The challenge for employers is to not underestimate the complexity of this work because you’re going to get clashes sometimes.
“This is all about transformational culture change. You have to invest in everyone in the workplace and in their capabilities, and hold them accountable if they’re not doing the right thing. It’s about providing them with the opportunity to be successful.”
The work comes in the form of change management and evidence-based learnings.
“It’s about working positively with people to build their knowledge in a way that’s engaging. If we look at how to engage men in workplaces on gender equality, for example, you present the facts around what’s actually happening, then work with men to understand two things. The first is that they stand to benefit from feminism. Research shows that gender-equal companies are more innovative, productive and flexible.
“The second is that, while they stand to gain, they’re also part of the solution. Men have enormous power in institutions to be part of that positive change, and the real strength is around how to use that power to be a strong and supportive ally.”
“Often it’s not the polarisation that hurts organisations. It’s the methods they use to deal with it.” – Lisa Annese, CEO, Diversity Council Australia
Five steps to unite employees
Managers might clash with employees over differing opinions. While it’s okay to disagree, each view must be respected, providing it’s respectfully given, says Annese.
“Leaders can say, ‘You’re entitled to your opinion, I won’t treat you any differently. However, this is our view as an organisation. This is what we stand for.’ And it’s up to individuals whether they align to that or not.”
Sinha says research identifies five key ways organisations can tackle polarisation and foster social inclusion.
The first is by promoting an inclusive culture. This involves collecting and analysing workforce data, then developing policies that ensure the organisation is distributing resources fairly, removing any unchecked privileges and emphasising social justice.
Secondly, organisations should train leaders to become “authentic role models”.
“Leaders must emphasise the importance of inclusion and demonstrate pro-diversity beliefs,” she says. “Providing them with tools to detect and respond to prejudice can strengthen their sense of responsibility to confront it.”
Third, organisations must align their practices to social inclusion. Examples include reward systems or performance management systems that reinforce inclusive behaviours and call out discriminatory ones.
“Alternatively, leaders can encourage employees from diverse views and backgrounds to work together towards similar goals, increasing their exposure to similarities in an attempt to build mutual respect,” says Sinha.
Fourth, there should be well-defined policies and guidelines that explicitly state the consequences of discriminatory behaviour and provide channels for reporting incidents.
Finally, ‘employee resource groups’ should act as safe spaces for members to discuss their diversity issues and experiences, and identify solutions from the bottom-up.
“These groups aren’t just for employees; they must include participation from middle managers and executive-level leaders.”
When companies move from merely tolerating differing views to actively encouraging diverse perspectives, they unlock potential for innovation and growth, creative problem-solving, and higher employee morale and satisfaction, says Sinha.
“When marginalised employees feel valued, accepted, included and respected for their unique perspectives, they are more likely to be engaged and committed to their work.
“All of this can improve retention and productivity. They’re also likely to feel an improved sense of belonging and psychological empowerment, which fosters confidence and creativity, and makes people more open to change and better able to adapt in the face of challenges.”
These attributes not only benefit workplaces, but also society as a whole.
Annesse agrees, saying: “The way forward is not to misunderstand each other. It’s to recognise that we all stand to gain from a world that’s more inclusive, respectful and collaborative.
“So often it’s not the polarisation that hurts organisations. It’s the methods they use to deal with it and the extent to which organisations are prepared to stand up for what is right.”
A longer version of this article first appeared in the August/September 2023 edition of HRM Magazine.
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