Bridging divides for better outcomes at work

17 May 2019 

By Alison Maitland

In divided times, there is cause for hope in initiatives that aim to bridge differences, whether at work, at home or in society. One such initiative is More in Common, a project that has brought together residents of Lambeth, in south London, where nearly 79% voted for Britain to remain in the EU, and Boston, in Lincolnshire, where nearly 76% voted for Brexit.

There are lessons here for how we build connections and cultivate better relationships at work, by making the most of our mix of life experiences and perspectives. Leaders need to be skilled at this, given that diverse teams have the potential to be smarter and more innovative than teams in which everyone is similar.

What can we learn for our workplaces from the More in Common initiative, which was founded after the murder of Jo Cox MP and inspired by her belief that ‘we have far more in common than that which divides us’?

Residents of the two communities have visited each other and listened to each other’s points of view. They have heard from each other about the impact of overstretched public services in eastern England in times of high immigration, and about the benefits of living in a multicultural, metropolitan area. The friendship project has attracted media attention and the BBC made a short film about it.

Exercising our power of choice

Those involved in the Lambeth-Boston project chose to reach across the divide, intentionally stepping out of their comfort zone to connect with people they knew had fiercely opposing views. They chose not to take the generalisations they had heard about ‘Brexiters’ and ‘Remainers’ at face value, but to find out for themselves.

We make up stories all the time, both about ourselves and others, to make sense of the world. We can believe these stories represent ‘the truth’ and stick doggedly to our own perspectives, or we can question our assumptions in pursuit of learning and connection.

Our inner stories are often more intense when they are about people who appear very different from us or whom we find ‘difficult’. We may start to exaggerate our differences rather than looking for common ground. These differences could be cultural, or connected to gender or age, or they could equally be about different communication styles, working preferences or personalities.

At work, we could decide to avoid a colleague who has just strongly disagreed with us at a meeting, or we might take the view that a team member must have a high opinion of herself because she has shared her intention to seek a pay rise.

Alternatively, we could choose to look at these scenarios from a different perspective. In their new book, ‘How to Work with People … and Enjoy It!’, authors Jenny Bird and Sarah Gornall point out that we have the power to rewrite our inner stories, and that doing so enables us to present a stronger version of ourselves to the world.

In the first scenario, we might say to ourselves: ‘After that disagreement, I’m going to go and find out more about his point of view, because it could help if we put our heads together and came up with a new and better solution.’

In the second scenario, we might edit our original version to this: ‘I’ve always felt nervous about asking for a pay rise myself, but she’s inspired me, so I’m going to thank her.’

Listening to connect

Changing our inner conversations makes it easier to have productive conversations with other people across differences. This requires listening with curiosity and an open mind, and letting go of ‘being right’. It means allowing for the possibility that the other person’s different perspective is equally, or more, valuable and that together we can create a better outcome than either of us could alone.

But what happens when there are communication barriers, or crossed wires? Jenny and Sarah, both executive coaches, offer some interesting techniques to overcome these.

One is to adopt the vocabulary of the person you’re speaking to. They tell the story of a finance director who was struggling with psychological vocabulary when talking about difficulties he was having with his teenage daughter. His coach switched to financial vocabulary, with which he was familiar, asking him how he would ‘audit’ the relationship. He became unstuck and began to find ways to address the difficulties.

Another technique is to listen to how people express themselves, what imagery they use, the pace and tone of their voice, and what cultural references may be present. So, for example, if the other person says ‘That feels like a step too far’, you could ask ‘What would feel a better distance?’ If they say ‘That doesn’t ring true’, you could ask ‘So how does it sound to you, then?’

These coaching techniques are applicable to everyday conversations, to show others we are really hearing them, even if there are big differences between us. It helps to connect us.

Putting on your best face

The authors advocate seeing the best in others, and saying the best about them, thereby showing our best selves and creating a ‘living virtuous spiral’. It can be hard to do this consistently, especially when things are not going well. But it’s a good habit to get into.

Sally Helgesen, author and expert on women’s leadership, gave an example on LinkedIn recently. She was stuck for nine hours at Chicago’s O’Hare airport due to an April snowstorm and missed an important meeting. She posted the to-do list she keeps on her phone for when she hits travel delays, including smiling and staying good-humoured, not complaining to fellow passengers, not being dragged into their complaints, and tipping service staff lavishly!

The advice I liked most is: ‘Make eye contact and connect at a heart level with everyone working in the airport whose path I cross – their job is hard enough without me adding to their burden.’

This excellent advice highlights what we have in common as fellow humans – and is a great way to appreciate and make the most of each person’s uniqueness.

This is an edited version of an article published by IWE (International Women of Excellence) on 12 May 2019.

©Alison Maitland 2019, all rights reserved


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