Fostering a culture of inclusion

Tips to bridge across differences at work

Last updated on August 13th, 2021 at 12:05 pm

We seem more divided today than ever before. Most people are afraid to approach divisive topics for fear of damaging a relationship or embarrassing themselves. We only consider what could go wrong with a conversation versus what could go right. So, we don’t try, allowing assumptions, biases and stereotypes to fester. But it doesn’t have to be this way. 

I lived in South Africa from 1996 to 1998. It was two years after the end of apartheid, after Nelson Mandela was released from prison and became president. I got to experience what it was like for a country to transition from a deeply divided apartheid state to a unified democracy. 

Much of this was made possible through the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was founded in the belief that truth was the only means by which South Africa could come to a shared understanding of their past in order to forge a new identity in the future. The commission, led by Desmond Tutu, held hearings across the country in churches and community centers, where victims of crimes under apartheid and perpetrators of crimes could come forward and share their stories in the spirit of seeking understanding and healing.  

The stories were aired on TV every Sunday, which helped spark a spirit of listening, learning and relationship-building across the country. I saw before my eyes how an intentional effort to uncover and understand the human experience common among all of us beyond race, culture and political affiliation healed an entire country. 

With that experience in mind, I am making a conscious effort to never walk away from the opportunity to find common ground through conversation even when it seems impossible. So far, I have not regretted any of my attempts and am amazed at how a single conversation can replace biases and assumptions with empathy and understanding. And the good news is, I’m not alone. I’m having more conversations with people about having conversations with people lately!  

Despite best intentions, however, it’s inevitable that someone will say something demeaning or offensive to another person at work. How these “diversity moments” are handled can make the difference between boiling over into large conflicts or fostering greater understanding among colleagues. 

Here are my tips for what leaders can do to enable a more positive outcome: 

  • Establish a process. Be clear on expected behaviors for your company community (what’s acceptable and what’s not) and identify a point of contact for employees to consult with when a conflict arises (a manager or designated HR representative). By communicating a process throughout the workplace, you reassure employees of your commitment to company values and that they can come forward with concerns without fear of retribution. 
  • Speak up. If you hear something inappropriate or hurtful, it is important to speak up. If you stay silent, other people may interpret your silence as support for the hurtful comment or action. If someone comes to you with a concern, encourage the individual to speak up. While conversations about politics, race, etc. are uncomfortable, not speaking up allows hurt feelings and misunderstandings to fester. And that leads to employees feeling that they don’t belong. The lack of belonging is a primary cause of lower employee engagement and loss of credibility with efforts to foster a culture of inclusion. 
  • Engage in respectful dialogue. When you speak up, make sure you do it with the goal of seeking to understand and bridge differences. Don’t assume that the other person intended harm. Quickly explain the concern from your perspective and invite the other person to share their perspective. Pose questions like, “I’m curious to know what you meant by your comment.” Explain the impact of what they said with phrases like, “I know you meant that to be funny, but it was hurtful to me because …” Finally, invite the person to share from their perspective by asking, “How do you look at this?” The goal is to not resolve the conflict in a single conversation, but rather to leave the door open for a second, third or fourth conversation. That’s when greater meaning and deeper relationship building occurs. 

With some proactive measures and inclusive communication skills, you can use workplace diversity moments to strengthen and give credibility to your efforts to foster a culture of inclusion. And keep in mind, honest dialogue is a small positive step we can all take in the right direction. If we keep it up, I think we can make the workplace (and the world) a whole lot better … one conversation at a time!

Beth Ridley is a leadership expert, workplace culture consultant and speaker. She combines 25 years of global leadership and management consulting experience with expertise in diversity and inclusion and positive psychology to help organizations transform their workplace culture. She can be reached at

Sign up for BizTimes Daily Alerts

Stay up-to-date on the people, companies and issues that impact business in Milwaukee and Southeast Wisconsin