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23 Jan. 2017 | Comments (0)

A highly contentious presidential election has exposed deep divisions in the U.S. population. This rift has been confirmed in recent opinion polls, including one conducted by CNN and ORC International showing that 85 percent of participants think the United States is more deeply divided this year on the major issues facing the country than in the past several years, compared with 76 percent in January 2013.

These divisions have created an urgent need to build bridges in our communities and workplaces. But how do we understand and discuss differences without creating more of a divide? 

Finding Common Ground Starts With Conversation 

Addressing differences is essential, especially when there is a "default" dominant culture. To create an inclusive culture, we need to understand and respect diversity in all its forms, including ethnicity, race, gender, sexual orientation and identity, disabilities, national origin, age, and religion. Many organizations have established employee resource groups (ERGs), also called business resource groups, to create a welcoming space for specific employees and their allies, such as women, veterans, LGBTQ people, and people with disabilities.

Increasingly, however, some individuals find that their identity cannot be defined within one affinity group and see intersectionality as a better way to understand inclusion. Indeed, some question if ERGs do more to separate than integrate employees because they categorize employees by differences.

It is imperative that we see past easy categorizations and avoid stereotyping. Yet there’s also the argument that only the majority are able to ignore these categories, because they more likely to be seen as individuals instead of representing a group, which often occurs with minorities.

Not only is achieving this balance essential to attracting and retaining the best talent; the business case for diversity and inclusion (D&I) has been well established with compelling evidence from McKinsey and the Center for Talent Innovation. Moreover, because innovation is a recognized driver of future growth, D&I is important for establishing new sources of ideas. In a recent Scientific American article, Katherine W. Phillips provided evidence that diversity produces superior thinking.

A recent article in the New Yorker discussed the relationship between politics and civic life, proposing that the essence of neighborliness is reciprocity—a factor, along with proximity, that can lead to greater understanding and acceptance—a principle that likely influences inclusive behaviors as well. An example of this is the greater acceptance of LGBTQ rights. As more people came out, a virtuous cycle of greater visibility, understanding, and legal rights was realized. This interpersonal dynamic of greater acceptance involved a discovery process: Neighbors, co-workers, family members, and others came out as LGBTQ, which promoted a mind shift.

Better understanding begins with conversation, but it must be focused on the concept of "learning rather than being right," as discussed in Crucial Conversations. Here are six guidelines to begin meaningful conversations in your organization:


How we frame interactions will often determine outcomes. Therefore, it is important to start by thinking about others' perspectives as valid (even when we disagree strongly) and using this as a starting place for conversation and discovery.


Break out of typical networks and social media "information cocoons" to explore different points of view. Learn about other cultures through books such as The Culture Map or Global Diversity. Question assumptions to discover commonalities and differences.


Having a well understood and institutionalized process will likely promote a greater willingness to take risks with one another. Here’s an example of a conflict resolution process: 

  • Define the criteria for resolution. 
  • Listen respectfully to all sides. 
  • Confirm understanding. 
  • Generate a pool of potential solutions. 
  • Evaluate all solutions against the initial criteria. 
  • Determine pros and cons. 
  • Reach agreement. 
  • Execute and refine, if needed.

We will never move the needle on D&I in organizations if the responsibility for change rests with the chief diversity officer, HR, or the learning and development function. Instead, cultivate the notion of shared responsibility—up, down, and across the organization for positive change.

Some organizations are adopting the mantra of "if you see something, say something," which may be coupled with bystander intervention training as implemented on college campuses, organizations, and even the U.S. Navy. The concept is a shared responsibility to stop bigoted or offensive language when it is observed. A recent research study found that when people are confronted with evidence of their own biases, they are less likely to show evidence of these attitudes on a subsequent test.


Sometimes managers, co-workers, peers, and others don't demonstrate inclusive behaviors for the simple reason that they don't know how to behave differently. Provide D&I toolkits and guidelines so that everyone has the requisite skills.


We have all been exposed to the Golden Rule, which instructs us to treat others as we would like to be treated. However, with the understanding that we have different histories, experiences, and mindsets, the Platinum Rule is more applicable: Treat others as they would like to be treated.

How has your organization promoted constructive dialogue to create a more inclusive workplace?


This blog first appeared on ATD's Human Capital blog.

View our complete listing of Diversity & Inclusion blogs

  • About the Author:Marjorie Derven

    Marjorie Derven

    Marjorie Derven is a Senior Fellow, Human Capital at the Conference Board. In this role, Marjorie supports the Human Capital Practice, which includes The Conference Board Human Capital Exchange,&trade…

    Full Bio | More from Marjorie Derven


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