In a Polarized World, How Can Leaders Foster Unity Without Losing Their Identity? These three practices can help leaders in complex environments.

By Sam Rockwell

Key Takeaways

  • It is critical to tread lightly and to remain mindful that our own worldview is not the only or right one.
  • Ethnorelative leadership is needed now more than ever to navigate complex organizational landscapes and cultivate cohesive teams
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Unless you've lived under a rock for quite some time, you cannot ignore the growing sense of "us" and "them," from global and national politics to social issues, identity politics, economic inequality and more. Virtually no industry or organization remains untouched.

In such an environment, how do you continue to do your work without alienating your employees, coworkers or customers — and without betraying yourself?

Related: 4 Must-Have Leadership Qualities

Intercultural sensitivity at work and home

Our rapidly changing and ever more turbulent global landscape means we can no longer assume that those in our communities, workplaces or homes share our perspectives. In such environments, it is critical to tread lightly and to remain mindful that our own worldview is not the only or right one. Researchers in various disciplines have exhaustively examined this topic and offered frameworks to demonstrate how to think about, navigate, and bridge the diversity of views we may encounter daily.

For example, American sociologist Milton Bennett created the Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity to help us understand where we fall on a scale from an us/them mentality to a more inclusive and egalitarian mentality.

On one end is ethnocentrism, meaning a my-way-or-the-highway orientation where we measure all others and their views according to our own culture and worldview. Bennett describes three stages of ethnocentrism:

  • Denial: There are no cultural differences; there is only the right way (my way) and the wrong way (ways that differ from mine). People in denial tend to isolate and separate from those with different worldviews.
  • Defense: Cultural differences exist, and some cultures are better (e.g., more virtuous, more intelligent, more accurate) than others. People in defense mode negatively stereotype others' cultures and elevate the superiority of their own culture. Alternatively, they may reject their own culture in favor of elevating another culture.
  • Minimization: Cultural differences are negligible because, at the core, we are all people due to our common biological or spiritual essence.

Ethnorelativism is at the other end of the spectrum, meaning recognizing and accepting cultural differences. Bennett describes three stages of ethnorelativism.

  1. Acceptance: Cultural differences exist, which should be respected and enjoyed. People in acceptance understand their worldview is but one of many — some of which they agree with and others don't.
  2. Adaptation: Cultural differences exist, and all cultures are valid. When interacting with someone from another culture, it is important to understand and adapt to the other's worldviews and cultural contexts.
  3. Integration: The existence of multiple cultures requires the creation of an intercultural orientation that reconciles, incorporates and honors multiple and even conflicting worldviews.

Each stage creates risks and benefits, although leaders with more ethnorelative orientations tend to be more effective in today's increasingly global and polarized settings.

Related: Diversity in the Workplace: Benefits and Why You Need It

Practices for leaders in complex environments

Frameworks like Bennett's lead to three practical takeaways organizational and team leaders can use to navigate a highly diverse and complex workplace:

  1. Cultivating self-leadership and responsibility: Mindful of the many cultural worldviews present, ethnorelative leaders exercise authority while cultivating self-leadership and responsibility within their teams. Such leaders always develop other leaders throughout the organization while fully accepting their cultural and social differences, working alongside them as equals, and honoring each other's worldviews. When leaders cultivate self-leadership and responsibility, they help ignite a self-generating culture of inclusivity.
  2. Practicing boots-on-the-ground leadership: Rather than staying in one's physical or virtual office space, ethnorelative leaders exercise less of a top-down management style and more of what is experienced as an active and caring presence in the field. This is similar to the principles of management by walking around described in the book In Search of Excellence by Tom Peters and Robert H. Waterman. In this approach, leaders directly observe and interact with their staff, remain visible and accessible, actively build relationships, and engage employees in continuous improvement and celebration of success. While hybrid and virtual workplaces may make this effort more difficult, it remains possible and critical to the kind of leadership needed today. When leaders keep their boots on the ground, they remain closely connected and aware of issues as they emerge within the organizational landscape and with their staff.
  3. Exercising wise influence: Understanding that ethnorelative leadership does not mean a laissez-faire, "anything goes" approach is critical. Leaders and their organizations must retain and align with their unique to remain coherent. This does mean standing for some causes while standing against others. Leaders who can exercise wise influence are not afraid to challenge proposals, initiatives and events when needed. Continuing to align with organizational identity and exercise-wise influence is critical for avoiding the risks of cultural and identity confusion that can occur at the extremes of ethnorelativism.

Related: Why Self-Leadership is Essential to Your Success

Ethnorelative leadership, characterized by cultivating self-leadership and responsibility, practicing boots-on-the-ground leadership, and exercising wise influence, is needed now more than ever to navigate complex organizational landscapes and cultivate cohesive teams that honor the diverging worldviews present.

Sam Rockwell

Entrepreneur Leadership Network® Contributor

CEO at Rockwell&Co

Sam Rockwell is a consultant, coach, and author specializing in helping medium to large businesses across sectors, industries, and the globe dramatically scale their results and profits by using the lens of identity to optimize their strategies, leadership development, and team performance.

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