Leadership/Management

Patrick Lencioni: How To Sew Unity In A Time Of Division

There is something going on in the American workplace today that has become a big problem for so many CEOs and the companies they lead. It threatens the very fabric of an organization’s culture, which I believe is the single greatest attribute of a successful company.  

What I’m talking about is the increasing number of employees in the U.S., and other parts of the world for that matter, who feel rejected, alienated or excluded by the companies that once embraced and respected them.  

A strong, healthy culture within an organization comes down to this: First, you have to have a clear set of values. Second, you have to adhere to those values in the way you hire, manage, reward, train and even dismiss employees. Third, you have to respect and support those employees who fit the culture so that they can thrive. Pretty simple, really.

The problem comes when an organization inadvertently adds new elements to the culture by embracing sociopolitical issues or causes that are unrelated to its core mission. Without realizing it, they leave many of their employees, who were once seen to be culturally aligned, suddenly feeling that they don’t belong. Those employees are then left to choose between two bad options: 1) They can leave the company in a spirit of rejection, or 2) they can stay and quietly endure the pain of violating their values. This is the reality for so many people working today.

How did this happen?  

The world changed with frightening speed in the past five years. That change wasn’t so much a shift as it was a divide. The emergence of a host of sociopolitical issues has created a massive rift in culture, one that is unprecedented in the past 50 years.

Topics that were once generally agreed upon by most are now sources of great strife. And the companies that we lead and where we work exist within that strife. So, what can a CEO and his or her team do if they want to have a strong, unified, truly inclusive culture?

Here’s my advice, and like most medicine, it may taste bad going down but will ultimately lead to greater organizational health and human dignity.

First, go back to your company’s true core values, the ones that you’ve been using to hire people and manage them for years. Strip everything else away for a moment.

Then, take an honest look at how your leadership team and your company may have strayed from those values by embracing issues and causes that go beyond the core values and beyond the core mission of the business. Don’t allow yourself to be swayed by the media, the loudest voices in your organization or even an overzealous HR professional who may insist that “everyone who is reasonable agrees with the latest narrative around issue x or movement y.”  

The next step is where the medicine might taste bad, but it is necessary to cure what ails you: Admit to your employees that you have accidentally drifted. Make it clear that you are serious in your embrace of your core values and that anyone who embraces those values should feel completely comfortable and welcome, regardless of how they might feel about issue x or movement y. Explain that you have inadvertently alienated many of your good employees (to say nothing of customers), people who embrace the organization’s core values but who don’t necessarily agree with the latest and loudest trends in society.  

What will happen when you do this?

Well, a whole bunch of your most loyal and reasonable employees will breathe a great sigh of relief. They will stop thinking about, or even pursuing, getting a new job where they feel more comfortable. And even many of the employees who might have agreed with your embrace of issue x or movement y will be glad to see that the company is being truly inclusive and transparent.

Now, a relatively small but disproportionately loud group of employees will initially howl. How can you not support issue x or movement y? Essentially, they would prefer that you formally announce that issue x and/or movement y is part of the company’s new core values, and that anyone who disagrees should leave. Yes, that’s what they want. Ironically, that is what makes them an enemy of true inclusivity.  

If all this sounds too difficult, there is another way to create a strong, unified culture. You can take the advice of those howling employees and do what they want. I mean that. You can decide that issue x or movement y is now a required belief for employees within the organization. And while that may not seem inclusive, it would actually be better than what we’re doing now, because clarity is kind.

What I mean is that it is better to be honest with employees about wanting them to leave than it is to confuse them about whether they belong. Really. It is actually cruel, a violation of human dignity, to welcome someone into an organization as a cultural fit and then one day quietly decide that they must get on board with issue x or movement y in order to fit in.  

So, why are so many leaders allowing this to happen? Because, understandably, they want to have their cake and eat it, too. They want to simultaneously a) placate the loud voices who demand that the company get involved in social issues that are not related to the core mission of the company and b) avoid losing a large group of employees who wouldn’t want to work at a company that doesn’t respect their political, social or religious views.  

Of course, you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to know that this doesn’t work. Over time, the howlers demand more support while the others feel increasingly alienated. Even if those alienated employees stay because they don’t have other alternatives, their sense of loyalty, not to mention their productivity and self-esteem, diminishes. There is nothing inclusive or kind about that.

So, I encourage CEOs to accept that they can’t have that cake and eat it, too. They need to choose to recommit to the core values of the organization and become truly inclusive of people who might not adhere to issue x or movement y. That means they will need to have the courage to accept the brief noise and ramifications that come with that choice. Or, they need to go all in on issue x or movement y and make it clear to employees who don’t align with those causes that they should work elsewhere. Either of those choices will lead to a stronger and more unified culture and preserve the dignity of employees.

Pat’s Practical Advice

In the midst of a world where society has become increasingly divided, maintaining cultural unity within an organization has become much more difficult. CEOs must make one of two decisions:

1. Pull back from issues that go beyond their core mission and values, thereby recommitting to the company’s real core values and creating a true culture
of inclusivity.

OR

2. Be explicit about embracing sociopolitical issues that are outside of the core mission of their business and be clear that many of their employees who do not agree with those issues would be best to leave.

Either choice leads to a stronger, more unified culture and preserves the dignity of employees.

The first big step for a CEO: Have an honest conversation with your leadership team, acknowledging the dilemma for what it is and pulling together around either of the choices above.


Patrick Lencioni

Patrick Lencioni, president of The Table Group, is the author of 10 business books, including The Five Dysfunctions of a Team.

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