Navigating Identity Politics: Insight for Leaders

There is a phenomenon taking place where groups and individuals are shrinking rather than expanding their points of view, unwilling to consider someone else's perspective outside of their own social group—at work, in friendships, and within families. Political differences and polarization are threatening inclusion. And these rifts are happening in all methods of communication, from social media to intimate one-on-ones. People are walking on eggshells and don't want to rock the boat, withholding their thoughts and feelings with coworkers and loved ones for fear of being negatively labeled or "outed" from the group.

The 2016 election spurred a degree of social upheaval and we are still seeing its effects in the workplace today. Although identity politics—positions based on the interest of social groups—have always been a potential point of discord, never in my career have I witnessed opposing viewpoints surfacing so directly and with such vehemence as they have during these last couple of years.

What we're witnessing in the workplace is what's been referred to by Faith Popcorn, author and CEO of Marketing Consulting firm BrainReserve, as "micro-clanning"—the forming of small groups with shared interests. While this isn't a bad thing in itself, the problem arises when these groups become "exclusive" to others, resulting in silos, discrimination, and a flat unwillingness to listen openly to other perspectives. In the workplace, this makes essential, inclusive conversations nearly impossible. It corrodes culture, innovation, and team dynamics by enforcing an "us vs. them" rather than "we" mindset.

I recently watched a TedX video that illustrates these ideas perfectly. Friends Caitlin Quattromani and Lauran Arledge (a Certified Fierce facilitator) discuss how their friendship has had its struggles due to their opposing political views. They were able to recognize that their friendship was stronger than their perspectives by checking their assumptions, asking each other questions, and engaging in open conversation about each other's perspectives. As a result, they came to understand that their views didn't have to hinder the connection that brought them together in the first place.

At Fierce, we recognize that people are more similar than they are different—the differences we have exist on the surface, and beneath it, there's so much similarity between what we share and desire for our relationships and our lives. While we may have different opinions about how to get there, more often than not, our vision or "end goal" is the same.

Included in our 2018 predictions, we anticipate that we may see an uptick in identity politics causing relational challenges at work this year. Here are some important takeaways that will help leaders navigate the social dynamics in the workplace and strengthen workplace culture:

1. Encourage curiosity. In our relationships and within our organizations, it's important to instill a mindset of curiosity rather than defensiveness. Rather than sticking to tightly-held assumptions, ask questions and dig deeper to gain a better understanding:

  • How do you feel about this?
  • Why do you feel that way?
  • What matters to you most in this situation?
  • From your perspective, what is the ideal outcome?

While asking questions is important, the most critical component of curiosity is listening from a place of empathy. Set aside the desire to "win" the conversation. When another person is speaking, listen fully with the intent to understand. Understanding should be the goal of our conversations.

2. Interrogate reality. Leaders need to engage and "stay awake" to what is happening within their teams and organizations. There are always multiple competing realities, and leadership needs to seek to understand the various contexts and perspectives within their teams. We can't afford to turn a blind eye. When relational issues arise due to opposing points of view, leadership will need to initiate conversation and address the issues directly with everyone involved.

3. Invite conflict. Although a place of conflict isn't where we want to be in the end, sometimes we have to invite disagreement in order to strengthen relationships and come up with the best possible solutions. We need to be promoting and not restricting dialogue, and we achieve this by using dialogue to welcome perspectives. If there is disagreement, it means people are sharing their thoughts and feelings, which is exactly what we need in our organizations. However, we do want to prevent conflicts from escalating and resolve ruptures so that these conflicts can be advantageous rather than detrimental when they occur.

In order for issues to be resolved, they have to come to the surface first. While the process of resolving surfacing issues may not be easy or pleasant, it's important that we recognize what's taking place within our organizations and the role of identity politics so that we can address it head-on…one conversation at a time. 

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