By: Chris White, Center for Positive Organizations, University of Michigan
This is a time of strong emotions and opinions in the United States. Most likely this is true around the world. How do we create workspaces where people can express and have dialogue about how they are feeling, without alienating others who may not feel the same way?
This is a different kind of column for me. Rather than writing about something I feel confident about because of research-based principles and practices, I am sharing something I am struggling with. Perhaps you are struggling with it too. Or perhaps you have figured it out and can share with me how to do so (feel free to comment below, or email me directly at email@example.com).
I believe that organizations have the potential to be places of healing. Almost all of us come to work with “baggage” – often counterproductive coping mechanisms learned from hard experience in past jobs, in our families, in our personal lives. Workplaces can provide an environment that allow people to unlearn some of these approaches and replace them with patterns that might be more trusting, open, vulnerable, creative, relational, and hopeful.
Here is a small example of what I mean by “organizational healing” in every-day life: I find that it often takes new team members some time to get used to being asked what they think on a problem or issue that they are bringing to me. In traditional hierarchical organizations, issues are escalated to the manager to be resolved by their supposedly “superior wisdom and experience.” Yet most of the time, the person bringing the problem actually knows what to do, they have just never been asked for their opinion or empowered to act on it. As a result, the manager becomes a bottleneck in the system and the team member stops thinking for themselves. Over time, people can break this habit and learn a new pattern: of either resolving the issue themselves without needing to take it to the manager, or bringing it to the manager with their thoughts and suggestions on how to resolve it. The manager ceases to be such a bottleneck, and the team member has the chance to grow in capability and confidence.
Another such coping mechanism revolves around expressing strongly held views. Indeed, in U.S. culture, it is often taboo to discuss politics at work (or around the dinner table). We fear alienating colleagues and friends, and so many of us choose not to openly discuss which party or presidential candidate we prefer. One difficulty with this these days is that it is increasingly unclear where to draw the line between what is political, and what is giving voice to values about society. If we do indeed want people to bring their whole selves to work, and let the workplace be a means to help us get to know our true selves, then we need to create a space to talk about the things that matter most to us.
Constitutional rights are not political. No political party “owns” values like freedom of speech, nor the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. Everyone deserves the right to be treated with civility, and dignity. Virtues such as honesty, compassion, patience, forgiveness, tolerance, and humility are not political. Discussing such behaviors – including where public figures meet these ideals or fall short – are not only acceptable in the workplace, they are essential if we are to try to create the kind of workplace, society, and world that is possible. In any era, under any president, this would still be true.
In our team at the Center for Positive Organizations (we have 100+ students, faculty, and staff, plus an even larger network of scholars and leaders around the world), we are advocating this approach. It is not always easy, and it is certainly not perfect. Already, we have had some people expressing discomfort or concern. But it is important, and it is worthwhile. Positive organizations are an essential foundation for a positive society.
To support people trying to lead others through these turbulent times, we have created a website of essays and resources. Feel free to visit it here, and please share with us your advice and experiences too.