Workplaces are one of the few places in society where we don’t get to choose who we associate with. With this in mind, understanding different backgrounds and viewpoints is important for being successful in business. Each person’s background defines their world, said Howard Ross. When we hear “diversity,” for many it brings up a “them v. us” feeling, rather than one of inclusion.

Over the past 20 years, we have seen a steady polarizing trend in our country…a movement toward a “them vs. us” way of thinking and acting. The resulting impact on our organizations, our political structure, our economy and our communities threaten the foundations that we hold most dear. A recent Diversity Insights Series conversation brought Howard Ross to campus to discuss why this dynamic happens and what we can do to begin to bridge these gaps in our lives.

ReInventing Diversity Howard Ross is one of the nation’s leading diversity training consultants and a nationally recognized expert on diversity, leadership, and organizational change. He founded Cook Ross in 1989 as a consulting firm dedicated to developing and implementing innovative solutions in diversity and inclusion. In his 90-minute talk, to a (diverse) group of business people from around the Twin Cities, Ross explained how our culture has changed and provided 8 ways to impact our unconscious reactions to “us vs. them.”

Today, most of news and commentary sites we read an watch share our worldview. Do you prefer MSNBC or Fox News, for example; NPR, talk radio (or sports talk)? We are “self segregating into mental (and physical) enclaves of people who think like us,” said Ross. This reinforces our ideas of “the others” as those who don’t think like we do. But, he points out, “there is a difference between having a strong point of view and demonizing each other.”

American demographics are changing organically – this has never happened before and we don’t have a rulebook for it. The beginnings for that “societal rulebook” are Ross’ 8 ways to impact our unconscious:

  1. Acknowledge bias 
    We all have our biases. Understanding that and knowing what they are is a first step. As yourself, “what’s my bias in this circumstance?” So often bias comes from thinking, “that’s the way we do things around here.” Can you be willing to change, to be flexible?
  2. Develop and practice “constructive uncertainty”
    We value certainty more than quality–it is more important to us, it seems, to take the easy route. A simple example: I’ll go to Caribou or Starbucks even though there is another “local” coffee shop nearby that could be a better option. Try something new and you can learn a lot.
  3. Explore awkwardness and discomfort
    Think about what is making you uncomfortable in a particular situation, and why. Trying to understand those feelings will allow you to work with them.
  4. Develop the capacity to use a flashlight on yourself
    Simply put, “What we observe, we can change,” says Ross.
  5. Engage with those people you consider “others”
    Be respectful, and try to learn about the life experiences that lead others feel the way they do. Even if you may not come to agreement on a divisive issue, you can better understand someone else’s frame of reference, and their right to that opinion.
  6. Get feedback and data
    Ask others about their perceptions of your biases, and find ways to measure them.
  7. Less guilt, more responsibility
    “…in order to live an ethical life, to live ethically and responsibly, I have to take some responsibility for the unearned advantage, which means working to change the society that bestows that advantage. It’s not guilt, but it is responsibility.” -Tim Wise
    [youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XhOh_EGe41Y[/youtube]
  8. Practice conscious awareness
    “Every villain is a hero in their own story,” noted Ross. Each political party, for example, wants what’s best for the country – they just have a different preference about how we get there. To better understand others and dissolve the barrier between “them” and “us,” one simple thing to do is start watching and listening to “other” media sources.

What other ways do you have to bridge the gap between “them” and “us?” Let us know in the comments.  The Diversity Insights Series is presented by the Opus College of Business in partnership with the Multicultural Forum on Workplace Diversity. Offered quarterly, the series will feature individual speakers or panels focused on current and emerging issues on workplace diversity and inclusion topics.

Learn more about the Multicultural Forum on Workplace Diversity and its 2012 conference, A Time for Innovation, March 20-22, 2012.