Healing our fractured society: A role for companies

It might sound strange, but after more than three decades as a consultant and researcher on organization culture, I believe the workplace has the potential to strengthen our fraying social fabric and lift our spirits.

I’m sad about the state of our country. At a time when we are facing social and existential problems that can only be solved by coming together, we seem to be driven farther apart and further into despair.

But I have some hope.

It might sound strange, but after more than three decades as a consultant and researcher on organization culture, I believe the workplace has the potential to strengthen our fraying social fabric and lift our spirits.

As Rebecca Henderson writes in her book, Reimagining Capitalism in a World on Fire, “At their best, larger corporations are cooperative communities, persuading hundreds of thousands of people to work together toward a shared goal.” Most companies are also places where coworkers – and their beliefs – present a greater degree of diversity than is typically found in our families, houses of worship, or neighborhoods.

As a result, the workplace can be a unique place for building common ground. It has the power to help everyone – of all religions, races, and ranks – feel a sense of belonging and shared purpose.

And the meaning and community that our companies can engender have the potential to ripple out in positive ways beyond the workplace.

Even better news – this isn’t a utopian fantasy. Many companies have pioneered healthy, inspiring, inclusive cultures, getting great business results along the way. And new research insights and practical tools offer a roadmap for others to move their organizations in this critical, society-healing direction.

I believe so strongly in the promise of organizations partly because I grew up with little exposure to their potential to elevate individuals and cultivate community. Adults in my small, blue-collar hometown in upstate New York generally did not work for major corporations that invested in people and cared about the culture of the organization.

But I did. In my 20s, I got a job at a human resources management consulting firm. I’d never heard the term “HR,” but quickly saw that some businesses think about people as “resources” in the best sense. As assets for investing in. And they recognize that there is mutual benefit in developing employees, engaging them, keeping them safe, and cultivating healthy relationships among them. Later, I worked as a strategy, organization change, and human capital management consultant at PwC, a company that invested in employee and leadership development along with a positive culture of shared purpose.

And now I lead Innovation Resource Center for Human Resources, a 501(c)(3) research organization that studies how to best foster healthy, productive human relations in the workplace (and it happens to be the predecessor of that HR management consulting firm where I launched my career as a consultant).

My experience as a workplace strategist has shown me that work makes a tremendous difference in our lives. Unfortunately, the difference can be negative. Decades of labor cost-cutting and shareholder primacy have disproportionately rewarded certain groups and left others behind.

But as organizations helped cause some of the unrest and polarization threatening society today, they are also well-positioned to help solve the problem.

Some might argue that organizations have no business fretting about social and political divisions. But a clear-cut distinction between commerce and the rest of society has always been a myth. Companies have long affected the broader community through the workplace experience they create for people as well as via the public policies they influence by lobbying and financially supporting politicians.

And today, an organization’s customers, investors, and employees expect leaders to engage in matters of public interest. Fully 86 percent of people expect CEOs to speak out on social issues, the impact of the pandemic, and job automation, according to a study last year by research and marketing firm Edelman.

There’s also a quieter way for organizations to contribute to a fairer, better future. It has to do with the kind of culture they create. With how people interact daily, with lived values, and with the extent to which the organization cultivates a shared purpose with its workers.

I’m talking about organizations creating a community – a place where people who may disagree on many issues can come together respectfully, recognize their shared interests, and accomplish goals that could not be achieved alone. A lot of attention gets paid to corporate policies and codes of conduct, which are critical. But what matters more is how people interact on a daily basis.

Aleria, a technology firm focused on creating inclusive, equitable organizations, recently studied 5,000 incidents in which people felt excluded at work. It discovered that the main source for a person’s experience of exclusion was not a company policy. It was the way another person treated them.

This speaks to the importance of creating a culture where “everybody matters,” as authors Raj Sisodia and Bob Chapman wrote in their 2015 book of the same name. Chapman, CEO of manufacturing company Barry-Wehmiller, has an employment philosophy of “caring for people and giving them meaning, purpose, and fulfillment through their work.”

Barry-Wehmiller revenues have risen from $20 million to $3 billion under Chapman’s leadership across nearly five decades. And it isn’t the only company that has prioritized positive human relationships and found success.

Consider the annual Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For list. This ranking, based on employee surveys by research and advisory firm Great Place to Work, tells a hopeful story over the past two decades. Several measures that speak to social solidarity rose 10 percent or more between 1998 and 2017 within the companies that ranked in the 100 Best. These include employee experiences of consistent cooperation, that “people care about each other here,” and that “we’re all in this together.”

The 100 Best is made up of big companies whose employees are diverse in terms of geographic regions, demographic background, and political beliefs. Still, these organizations found ways to build a stronger sense of community over time—even as our country grew more polarized. What’s more, the 100 Best have regularly outpaced competitors in terms of stock performance, customer satisfaction, organizational agility, and other business performance yardsticks.

The business imperative to foster healthy human connections and collective purpose has only grown more pressing in the past few years. Employees have been experiencing high levels of stress and isolation since the pandemic began. And even though many appreciate (or even insist on) work-from-home arrangements, workers also miss the camaraderie offices can provide. Nurturing connections among employees in this moment is important for motivation and productivity.

In addition, a major reason for the “Great Resignation” has been “toxic” work cultures where workers feel disrespected, where diversity, equity, and inclusion aren’t valued, and where unethical behavior takes place. The dissatisfaction with unhealthy cultures extends to top executives—according to a recent survey of workplace well-being conducted by Deloitte and Workplace Intelligence, nearly 70% of the C-suite are seriously considering quitting for a job that better supports their well-being.

What’s more, organizations are increasingly becoming “networks of networks.” And in these emerging business ecosystems, positive relationships among peers across and beyond the organization are critical.

Then there are wider reasons for prioritizing a strong civic culture in your organization. People’s professional networks are vital to their personal well-being, according to research by Rob Cross and Inga Carboni.

And the experience people have at work affects how they show up as family members, neighbors, and citizens. Most adults work. And how those individuals feel when they leave their job has a profound impact on how they treat other people outside of work. Whether it’s their family, friends, or someone at the grocery store.

Put simply, workplaces shape our social fabric—for better or worse.

So how do leaders create what Martin Luther King, Jr., called a “beloved community”—where everyone feels they matter? I see three key steps.

Respect Everyone

Anti-democratic, populist movement in the United States and other countries can be seen, in part, as a response to spiking socio-economic inequality as well as a profound sense of disrespect and diminished autonomy among working class people. Dignity, purpose, and fairness are fundamental human needs that – at least in the context of work – employers can provide and that contribute to better business . And this means all their employees, not just the more highly paid, “knowledge workers” who often get better treatment.

A recent report by McKinsey and Co. made precisely this point: “People in lower-paying jobs also want their psychological needs at work to be satisfied. Yet data show that those needs are typically going unmet, far more often than is the case for higher earners.”

Among McKinsey’s suggestion is designing jobs that are “more skills-based, autonomous, connected, interesting, or purposeful.” Research by Ellen Frank-Miller – Job Quality is a Pathway to Alpha – shows that companies that do this also realize improved business performance.

Recognition, a say in decisions, and opportunities to take initiative also are important. Managers are vital here. They must be selected, developed, and recognized for creating a consistently respectful climate where all team members can thrive.

Cultivate Relationships

Social isolation during the pandemic only exacerbated what some call an “epidemic of loneliness.” Organizations can act as an antidote to people feeling disconnected and lonely.

Before the pandemic made remote working much less prominent, shared office spaces naturally fostered some workplace relationships. Now, organizations need to play a more active, intentional role in cultivating bonds among co-workers. This takes some careful thought—especially at a time when many companies can be seen “bungling” their flexible workplace initiatives.

Thankfully, scholars such as Cross and Carboni have discovered ways that managers can help optimize healthy social and professional networks for their teams. Among their critical strategies is actively managing the internal network structure of teams through actions such as rewarding collaboration, engaging folks on the “edge” of the team, and minimizing silos.

Cross and Carboni also urge managers to cultivate high-quality relationships within teams, in part by increasing awareness of team members’ expertise, fostering trust, and preventing difficult team members from undermining morale. They also call on leaders to build connections between team members and others in the broader organization.

Author Michael Arena adds that leaders in particular ought to intentionally cultivate connections across teams. The pandemic has eroded those ties among leaders, leaving teams to be cut off in “neighborhoods” rather than linked in a cohesive, broad network.

Elevate Purpose

Recent crises have many people “languishing” – questioning the meaning of life and feeling a sense of malaise. This is especially true for young people.

A quest for more purpose in life is among the reasons behind the mass resignations and job shuffling over the past two years.

Organizations can help themselves and their people by elevating purpose. This means treating the organization’s mission and values as more than mere words on a wall. It may mean reflecting on and updating the company’s highest calling – ideally with broad input from employees.

Elevating purpose means making decisions in keeping with the proclaimed mission and espoused principals. And it means helping every employee see how their efforts contribute to a larger, worthy goal.

Purpose can look very different for different businesses. Some industries have a clear, uplifting goal – such as the healthcare arena’s focus on human wellbeing. But virtually every business can connect what it does to a meaningful end. And managers can help connect the dots for employees, so they experience purpose in their work.

If organizations take such steps to cultivate purpose and community, much good can come. Businesses can help us in this moment of collective anxiety to renew our faith in each other and our sense of shared human aspirations.

So yes, I’m sad and worried by what I see around me. But I am encouraged by what’s possible in our organizations. Consider these stirring words from Raj Sisodia and Bob Chapman in their book, Everybody Matters. They are talking about companies. But I believe their quote applies just as well to our society.

“Everyone wants to do better. Trust them. Leaders are everywhere. Find them. People achieve good things, big and small, every day. Celebrate them. Some people wish things were different. Listen to them. Everybody matters. Show them.”

Jodi Starkman is Executive Director of the Innovation Resource Center for Human Resources.

Photo by Jay Castor on Unsplash