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Organizational Success in a Polarized World
by Matthew W. Hurtienne, Ph.D


The ability to express our differences of positions and thoughts has made the United States of America unique and special. However, what happens when individual voices, themes, and ideas cause polarization, and it becomes difficult for individuals to communicate and work together? What happens when events that occur outside the workplace start impacting your company’s performance?

We already know that our employees have been through a whirlwind of emotions and feelings this year. 2020 has been a unique experience for our employees and our organizations. We have the fall-out from the Coronavirus, increased racial tension, and varying political agendas. Each of these topics can cause “tribes” to become more polarized and distant, but together, it increases the probability of unproductive relationships. As leaders and human resource professionals, we can turn away and say the outside world will not impact our operations, or you can choose to navigate the external turbulence to help ensure a productive workforce.

In a recent HR class, I discussed what I believe is the essential purpose of a human resource team. The fundamental purpose of HR falls under three categories.
  1. be a voice for employees and protect their employee rights.
  2. advocate for job applicants by advocating for an ethical and legal employment application process.
  3. work to build a healthy organization by reducing risk to the company and developing sustainable practices to improve talent.

If these core principles are followed for every organization, we should find constructive ways to communicate our differences, evoke change, and minimize disturbances. We should not turn our heads and pretend that polarizing points of view will not affect our employees, but should recognize that employees cannot just shut out the outside world when they work through our doors.

Even though our organizations may be struggling with all the events occurring this year, we still know that when an employee’s perception of trust within an organization goes up, we should also see an increase in employee engagement, leading to higher productivity. A starting point is ensuring we have procedures to hire and train leaders who have servant leadership traits. We desire leaders that look at employees' needs before their own.

So how do we get there? First, we need to open up our minds and look at life through a different lens to minimize biases. Let’s discover what we don’t know and determine what can help us lead through change. During a recent conversation with a co-worker and friend, I mentioned that I would enjoy sitting and learning from leaders like Desmond Tutu and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Think about the rich discussion and the insight that could be gained from their experiences, and how that experience and understanding could be useful within our organizations.

As you think about improving the ability to enhance trust and dialogue with your own organization, consider the following.
  • Create a culture where employees can work in an environment that is free from fear.
  • Express and deliver authentic communications with the entire organization.
  • Take the time to become involved with your employees and discover their life experiences and make each employee unique.
  • Encourage participation in learning opportunities that speak to worldly events.
  • Develop a safe space for employees to listen, learn, and discuss personal and work topics.
  • Strengthen your own and your teams' emotional intelligence and social awareness.

In closing, and as I prepare to write a business leadership course for a Doctorate of Business program at Concordia University of Wisconsin, I find myself contemplating what traits are required to be a successful leader. Sure, the ability to manage budgets, predict the future, align strategic priorities are all important, but I believe it is more important to be a servant leader, someone who is able to lead and help their organizations get through the storms in life. Leaders need to be able to open a critical and constructive dialogue among diverse opinions, and continuously demonstrate that they can provide a safe working condition.

 
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