Lead With Inclusion

How you can lead your employees with divergent viewpoints

May 22, 2024

Like it or not, people don’t leave their personal values at home when they go to the workplace. And while we cannot (and should not) police what our employees believe, we must be able to navigate divergent viewpoints at work—from between team members to among leadership. When you’re part of a company, you become a part of that company’s values and expectations of behavior.

Easier said than done, right? Managers and leaders must create some unity on their teams without suppressing their individual expression. Yet most managers have not been taught how to, well, “manage” the tension of divergent viewpoints. And when we have obvious trouble helping employees get along well enough to work together, it can reveal incoherent values at our organization, which breeds confusion and conflict.

Be an Inclusive Leader:

Starbucks has been called out on several occasions for handling this tension poorly. In 2020, the company was accused of being “tone deaf” when it banned employees from wearing Black Lives Matter T-shirts. Again in 2022, the $28.2 billion company got in hot water for using dress code as an excuse to stifle a union leader’s support for Suicide Awareness (he kept wearing an awareness pin, so they fired him!).

After public outcry, Starbucks changed their tune. They released their own BLM merch (🙄see my related PSA here) and claimed they support World Mental Health Day. Just… no.

Company leadership can avoid these blunders by getting out in front of hot-button issues with open conversations and clear leadership. Respecting, including, and having appropriate boundaries around divergent viewpoints at work boils down to relationship management.

Instead of focusing on what our employees want to express, we should focus on how included they feel and whether or not they think they can be authentic with you, their colleagues, and your client base.

In our current climate, take the extremely painful conflict in Gaza. American workers have their disparate viewpoints (which everyone is entitled to). They may want to express their views through clothing, logos, or ethnic or national symbols, which could make certain colleagues feel unsafe, targeted, or defensive at work. What can an inclusive leader do?

Lead with Inclusion:

If your employees fear retaliation, or being ostracized or excluded, these are the areas of your policies and procedures you need to reevaluate first. And that means exercising (and championing) ownership, education, and vulnerability.

Managers Are the Front-Line for Shared Values

You need to own your role at the helm of your company’s mission statement and actions. A company has to be able to say “these are our values and this is how we want to treat people and this is what we’re going to do.” And then, managers have to be able to lead the way. So if your company stands behind inclusion, it may not be the best move to silence employees’ strong feelings about global unrest. Instead, it might be a better move to lead active conversations (meetings) about your shared values: wishing for no cultures to be oppressed, for instance, or becoming involved in coalitions that provide aid to victims of war. This may not include telling employees “not to wear” certain items (unless those items violate the company’s clear and inclusive dress code), but it may include educating them on navigating difficult conversations with coworkers or customers on (and off) the clock.

Continuing Education

Many managers don’t know how to take the lead on controversial topics, and equally challenging, employees are more righteous in their own needs than ever before. Managers somehow have to reinforce unity while encouraging individualism. This may mean both leadership and staff need to be continually learning from each other and changing the way they act—taking and developing more appropriate trainings (our “Unconscious Inclusion program is one example) and adopting better and more up-to-date relationship strategies. If managers align on conversation and education as premium policies, they will set the tone that everyone is welcome, respected, and always learning.

Admit Where You’re Still Growing

If vulnerable transparency isn’t among your utmost principles, the whole company will suffer. Leaders need to be able to say that they don’t have the answer to many interpersonal conflicts in the workplace, or that they feel ill-equipped (obviously) to resolve bigger global issues. They also need to admit to their higher-ups when they need help resolving conflicting stances or taking appropriate disciplinary measures for behavior outside their values (yelling at or berating coworkers or customers, for instance.)

When it comes to leaders addressing their superiors, they need to request resources that can help them navigate their most difficult conversations with employees. Equally, executives at your company need to demand leadership from managers of their employees. At all levels of a company, people need to be given grace by those both above and below them when they’re doing their best.

When it comes to leaders addressing their teams, they need to focus on helping those who report to them, as well as on improving team dynamics and the messaging that is reaching customers or clients. If a key message is inclusion, creative and evolving strategies will need to replace the rule books about what is acceptable to wear or say during work hours.

With confident, thoughtful, and open relationship management, you can lead your team—with inclusion—to feel safe to be themselves.

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