Important Conversations at Work: Improving Communication Across Differences

Guest contributed by Katherine Giscombe

At this contentious time in the United States, the rights of all women are under fire.

In spite of movements against sexual harassment that are gaining in popularity and support, such as #MeToo and TimesUp, there are factions within the country including lawmakers who actively oppose equal, fair and just treatment for women. And there has been an uptick in violence and harassment directed against racial minority groups, which have been condoned, and even spurred, by those in high political offices.

Boundaries between our work and personal lives continue to blur given the increasingly 24-hour a day expectations of employers, greater levels of virtual work, and increased workloads across industries. It becomes more difficult, over time, to not bring concerns about our lives outside of work into the workplace. The context of our lives affects our well-being and experiences at work, as shown in Catalyst’s research on the Emotional Tax, which demonstrates that a majority of women and men across racial/ethnic minority groups report feeling vigilant or on guard in the workplace, constantly preparing for the potential to deal with bias, discrimination, or exclusion.

It is vital for employees and associates to be able to engage with each other in a healthy manner, and develop mutual understanding even when they do not share similar backgrounds or experiences. Further, in the workplace, as research on career progression has shown, it is essential to develop relationships with allies and potential sponsors who can help progress one’s career. But doing so can be difficult among those from different backgrounds.

Catalyst has developed methods for reaching across differences to form meaningful connections at a personal level. It starts with understanding how communication among employees and associates can improve, and providing tactics to do so. In summary, reluctance to engaging across differences can fall into three major themes:

  • There isn’t a problem (attitudes about whether issues of gender, race, and ethnicity warrant concern)
  • There’s no benefit to talking (judgments about whether it’s worth the effort to discuss these issues)
  • There will be negative consequences to my actions (experiences that influence whether someone speaks up or remains silent).

Those who feel that there is not a problem may assume that race or gender differences don’t matter, because they believe they view women and men equally, and have no racial prejudice. A way to move beyond these beliefs is to ask one’s colleagues (of a diversity of genders and race/ethnicity groups) if they have ever experienced or witnessed biased behavior, and probe on what it looked like, what was verbally communicated. Further, they can ask whether colleagues of a different racial, ethnic, or cultural background feel that the workplace respects their identity and experiences.

Those who believe there is no benefit in talking may feel that race and ethnicity are not relevant in certain places, or that talking about our differences can only further divide us. Catalyst recommends asking colleagues a number of questions, including identifying times when discussing any type of difference has led to a positive outcome. Another suggestion is to identify “off-limits” issues— then discuss how not talking about these issues can derail inclusion.

Finally, the fear that there will be negative consequences to my actions is sometimes grounded in the fear of being labeled as overly sensitive, or the belief that it is not safe to speak up in the workplace. In these cases, Catalyst recommends that an employee ask a colleague for help in providing honest, constructive feedback, especially in cases where the employee uses words that are hurtful or offensive. Other advice includes asking a team member who has been silent during a meeting if he or she would like to contribute a different perspective.

In Catalyst’s workshops and consulting engagements, we sometimes use “ice breaker” exercises that build rapport across differences. One such example is a “pair share” in which each member of the pair names three identity groups he or she belongs to, including two visible elements of difference, and one invisible. Each person then takes turns sharing aspects of their identities. When sharing one’s identities, the speaker practices demonstrating vulnerability and self-disclosure. The listener, in turn, practices suspending judgment and inquiring across difference.

Going beyond building interpersonal connections at work, employees and associates can also co-create structures at work that encourage inclusion. This might entail forming an employee or associate resource group (ERG) for all women in the organization, that focuses on the many needs encompassed by women. In working with Catalyst’s supporter organizations, we sometimes see that women of color prefer to join an ERG that represents their racial/ethnic group, rather than the women’s groups. A good way to form alliances to get more done for all women would be for a women’s ERG to ensure that its officers represent a diversity of women within the company, and also represent the interests of a diversity of women.

Reaching across differences to form meaningful and robust working relationships can enhance our personal and professional lives, and provide a fortification of support during fraught times.