by Kent Johnson, J.D., Senior Corporate Advisor, Religious Freedom & Business Foundation
Suppose you’re a middle manager who was recently assigned an important full-time project that’s expected to last a year. Your project co-workers don’t know one another. They’re of different races, nationalities, social backgrounds, cultures and religions. The project necessitates close, trusting collaboration among all of you. The time-sensitive business objective and general guidelines on how to accomplish it have been clearly communicated to all.
How will you help this group get started on a positive trajectory? How (if at all) will your core beliefs, and those of your teammates, help shape your course of action?
Some workers might reasonably decide to focus exclusively on accomplishing the specific business objective and ignore all the differences (since time is precious). Let’s call that the “Get It Done” (or “GID”) approach.
On the other end of the spectrum, some might seek to encourage personal dialogue up and down the reporting chain, so as to strengthen mutual understanding and connection (since it’s hard to build trust without seeking connection). We’ll call that extreme the “Building The Relationship” (or “BTR”) approach. WHERE WOULD YOU FALL ON THE GID/BTR SPECTRUM?
For those who lean toward GID: Would it make a difference if you knew that several essential team members consider it part of their personal “calling” and passion – their reason for existing – to connect meaningfully with their coworkers; and that they’d interpret an extreme GID approach as a signal that their core identity is devalued? What if this constraint on connection would cause them to disengage from the task at hand? Should you nonetheless silence the BTR extremists, and promote those like you, the GIDs? Is that approach likely to advance your cause?
For those who lean toward BTR: What if you learned that several team members ascribe highest value to accomplishing the task, and are sincerely worried that a focus on getting to know one another is a waste of time and will distract the team from the objective? Should you sit these diligent workers down against their will, and take time to try to persuade them that it’s better to BTR? Is that approach likely to change the GID devotee’s heart?
Your coworkers’ core beliefs, values and sensitivities (whether “religious” or not) shape the way they approach situations like this. Every individual is different. In some cases, a person’s hesitancy to discuss core beliefs and identity may result from introversion. Many may not have thought deeply enough to form a core belief. Or the hesitancy may stem from worry that personal disclosure of core beliefs would be viewed as rude or improper.
The diversity movement has shown that diverse perspectives strengthen a company’s performance and influence a more engaged, more civil environment. It’s almost always counterproductive to force individuals to behave in a way that they think violates their core values, beliefs and identity (unless, of course, those core values promote cheating, lying, bullying or other unethical behavior!) It’s demoralizing to feel shut down.
As is normally the case, Management has got to convey an urgency to “get the job done.” But most American work cultures already have this part down pat. Where it’s entrenched, the GID culture’s silence about coworker relationships is often interpreted as a message that efforts to connect on a meaningful level would be frowned upon. Worse, a dominant GID culture spawns a palpable fear among relationship-builders that they’ll be demoted or fired if they engage (or, at best, that they’ll be viewed as frivolous time-wasters). This is why, in our experience with diverse workforces, there’s usually a critical mass of team members who have a deep-seated, strong, but stifled desire to connect more meaningfully with their coworkers who are willing.
There are often ways to “get it done” and “build the relationship” at the same time. But FORCING middle-of-the-road uniformity on all individuals is often destructive. So here’s our advice, based on the experiences of many companies: Never try to force personal disclosure and relationship-building on unwilling individuals. Respect those on the GID side of the spectrum. Let it go. And in the same spirit of respect, be purposeful and vocal about freeing your BTR workers to live in accordance with their personal sense of ”calling” to connect.
There are many other facets of the GID/BTR spectrum at work, and we certainly haven’t provided the needed answers here. Hopefully these ideas trigger some useful dialogue in your workplace. Let us know if we can help you think through these nuanced issues.
In future installments we’ll discuss other apparent tensions; including questions concerning the role of faith and belief in “Social Responsibility vs. Profitability,” “Quality vs. Marketing Hype,” and “Product Design vs. Manufacturability.” It’s not a zero sum game in any of these cases. Advancing the one objective need not compromise the other. Authenticity and Connection can help.