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Societal division could lead to division at work, but it doesn’t have to

People working together

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It would be naïve to think that what’s going on in the outside world wouldn’t have an impact inside a workplace. The heightened tensions from a global pandemic, shifting economy, politics, social inequality and injustice, etc., will show themselves if they haven’t already. The classic horror movie trope puts it more bluntly: The killer is inside the house. Well-being, work environment, professional relationships, employee engagement and company performance are all at stake.

Division in society could lead to division at work — but it doesn’t have to.

A company has a few things going for it that society (unfortunately) doesn’t have at this time. Because of that, it can be an oasis and force for positive change. Take the opportunity to demonstrate responsible corporate citizenship. Leverage these to proactively address and protect both people and the business, inside and outside the company:

A company has a few things going for it that society (unfortunately) doesn’t have at this time.

A common purpose. One might wonder lately just which purpose the United States is fulfilling in this world. It’s evident that there’s more than one, and they seem to be moving targets. Our news cycles and social media both shift and shape the dialogue. A clear, commonly held purpose is lacking. What Viktor Frankl wrote is proving true: "Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose."

A socially responsible business, however, has one clearly defined purpose that’s intended to inspire those working together. Employees know the organization’s reason for existence, and they have common goals to achieve that purpose.

Take action: Review the organization’s purpose for its relevance, strength and impact. Seek ways to systematically and continually incorporate this purpose into all efforts within the company. Answer this question: "How might we make our company’s purpose known in what we do?"

Shared values and culture. American culture has not been intentionally managed. No one can agree on its values. The absence of shared values erodes a sense of collective identity and pride. This lack of discipline has allowed extremism to emerge as diametrically opposed sides and various agendas fight for dominance. Most companies have at least articulated their values, and the good ones ensure that these match with their lived culture and experiences.

In this time of national strife, a company’s culture must be at its best, demonstrating its ideals as role models. Anything short of that should be triggering some sort of corrective action right now.

Case in point: the lack of progress when it comes to diversity in CSR is well-known. This is a cultural issue. Renewed and ongoing efforts should be initiated for consistency and real, sustainable change.

Chris Librie, a California-based CSR leader, believes “this is a time for corporate America not only to take a stance against injustice and racism, but to walk the talk. It's time to ensure that our corporate actions back up the brave talk in favor of change. That means more representation by women and people of color in leadership positions at our companies and a commitment to drive diversity in the future. Otherwise, the words will ring hollow."

Take action: Evaluate the current state of the company culture, leverage strengths and address gaps, especially when it comes to diversity. Answer this question: "How might we instill our values through our culture on a daily basis?"

More resources (and discretion to use it). It appears that even the most complex of businesses can secure resources more readily than public agencies and local governments. This goes beyond funds — it’s about access to and deployment of the information, knowledge and talent when needed, before, during and after crises. Economic downturn or not, certain investments must be made: in the employees; workplace culture; communities; the world at large.

A socially responsible company knows and acts upon its need to work toward the greater good. Corporate responses to the COVID-19 pandemic and racial and social injustice in our country have been encouraging, but they are still not enough and there is always more to do. CSR-led companies should recognize that they can be the ones to forge ahead and raise the standards. 

Take action: Invest in things that ensure people thrive, such as engagement and development. Strategically use resources to achieve sustainable change and win-wins for all. Answer this question: "How might we define and achieve success from investments in our own communities?"

A platform for affecting change, inside and outside the company. Being an "entity" implies a longevity beyond individual leaders. Purpose, values and long-term strategy work in tandem to drive progress. Knowing that our society’s brokenness unduly could influence what a company has worked so hard to build, the platform also can serve as a safe place for dialogue and reconciliation, within the workplace and in the community. People are experiencing the world differently, but what’s happening is affecting everyone.

These forums need expert leadership and facilitation to ensure the conditions are in place for productive dialogue and outcomes. Our society needs help in negotiating where one’s rights end and another’s begins. In listening more than talking, lending their platforms for positive change and taking action on what they learn, companies can model and demonstrate their capacity for transformation.

Take action: Initiate dialogue inside and out, provide wellness resources, implement decisive steps and practice advocacy to help this nation heal. Answer this question: "How might we leverage our platforms for social change within and outside the company?"

Opportunity to Innovate. More and more, the world is depending on the private sector to solve its problems because it is better positioned to innovate. Recent examples include the rush to develop COVID-19 vaccines and the first commercial launch into space. Innovation need not be restricted to scientific achievement alone. Social progress has many needs that are just as, if not more, important. Innovation-driven companies should be ready to rise to the challenge of solving the unsolved problems of the world.

Take action: Create or revise the company’s innovation strategy for a product pipeline with social impact. Answer this question: "How might we successfully align across innovation, people and our products for genuine social impact?"

A company’s well-being is at stake, but even more than that the future of our society is at stake.

As shared by David Cooperrider, professor of social entrepreneurship at Case Western Reserve University and the originator of the Appreciative Inquiry model, "We are perfectly designed for our current results." Businesses must demonstrate leadership and deploy what they uniquely possess: purpose, values, resources, their platforms and their innovation to achieve better results for all.

In your next leadership meetings, ask, "What are we willing to do for the greater good?" Then do it.

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