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Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that today’s workplace bears little resemblance to the workplace of only a few years ago.

At the intersection of culture, politics, and changing generations, there’s been a dramatic shift in the way people get work done.

Sure, technology plays a big role in the change. But “the people stuff” is the biggest driver in the evolution.

Not everyone is comfortable with the changes. In fact, many people are decidedly uncomfortable. But to ensure the health of business—of our world, in fact—a lot of people need to dial down the differences, smooth out the friction, and play upon each other’s strengths. It’s a paradigm shift—and behavior shift—that can work to the benefit of everyone involved.

Kelly McDonald offers a wealth of ideas on navigating today’s workplace. In addition to heading one of the top advertising agencies in the U.S., she’s a recognized expert in organizational culture and employee relationships. She’s written several bestselling books. My favorite is How to Work with People Not Like You: Practical Solutions for Today’s Diverse Workplace. 

Regardless of the role you play in your workplace, I’m betting Kelly has some ideas you can put to good use.

Rodger Dean Duncan: Although the notion of workplace “diversity” may seem like a fairly recent phenomenon, it’s actually a timeless issue. Other than the hot button subjects of race and gender, what personalities and traits present challenges in today’s workplace?

Kelly McDonald: You nailed it, Rodger. Different traits and values can present challenges when people work together. Some people like to work alone; others are very collaborative and like to have meetings to ideate. A salesperson thinks (and acts) very differently than an attorney at the same company. Risk-takers are different from those who take a more conservative approach. Even the reasons why we work can differ. Some people may simply desire a good job that supports their family or lifestyle. Others may be highly ambitious and have goals of getting to upper management or leadership roles. “Diversity” is any way that people can differ from one another, and for leaders, the challenge is to draw out the expertise and insights that come from different perspectives. The value is in the different perspectives, not merely the personality type.

Duncan: Many people feel that political correctness has transformed the workplace into a nerves-on-edge zone where even the most innocent comment or behavior can “trigger” someone’s fragile equilibrium. What’s the key to helping people get comfortable with each other’s differences?

McDonald: Daily, I talk to leaders and employees who report they are so afraid of saying the wrong thing that they say nothing at all. And that’s not good for business. The place to start is by having clear conversations about what the business goal is (to do better and be better). Lead by example by going first. Name the elephant in the room. This validates others’ feelings of discomfort, provides a sense of relief, and creates shared camaraderie in the awkwardness.

Here’s an example of what you could say to your team: “I’ve never talked about race at work before and I am unsure how to do it now. I feel a bit inept and clunky, and I don’t think I am going to be very eloquent. I hope you’ll bear with me. I can imagine it feels awkward for you, too.”

Those are honest words. People trust someone who speaks that openly and honestly. It gives the team a safe space to share their discomfort and trepidation, too.

Duncan: There’s no doubt that some differences in people and groups can create conflict and harm productivity. What’s your advice on how to talk openly and constructively about such issues without stereotyping or offending?

McDonald: Keep the conversation focused on a course of action. That’s what business is about. Every decision we make in business is about developing a course of action (e.g., what product are we marketing? How should we price it? In which regions will we launch it?  Who will manage that region?).

As differing approaches, opinions, and perspectives emerge around such a discussion, thank employees for their perspective and keep bringing it back to how to utilize those perspectives going forward. For example: “Karina, that’s an interesting perspective and one we hadn’t considered. Thank you for bringing that up. OK team, how can we leverage that insight to do better and be better with our recruiting, hiring, sales, management, and customer service efforts? And does anyone else have insights to share that will help us compete in this area?” This fosters open discussion and lets people know that every perspective is valued and welcomed.

Kelly McDonald

Duncan: What are some of the most common mistakes in such conversations? In other words, what should not be said?

McDonald: The biggest mistake I see is saying “you people” or “those people.” These words imply an “otherness” and send a message of “you’re not like me” or “you’re not like the rest of us.”  Teach your team to never say those words. Even when wrapped in a compliment, such as, “I just love how you people are so faith- and family-oriented,” it is insulting because you create a wall of otherness between you and the other person.

For example, instead of saying “What do you people eat at Hanukkah?” say “What are the traditional foods served at Hanukkah and how does your family celebrate the holiday?”

Duncan: You suggest avoiding the phrase “Let’s agree to disagree.” Why?

McDonald: “Let’s agree to disagree” are words that sound polite, but they don’t work.  It’s a phrase that can come across as superior (“you obviously can’t see that I’m right”), judgmental, and dismissive. More importantly, it’s a conversation-ender. When these words are said, both parties know that the conversation is over—and that’s not good for business. Even if we don’t see eye-to-eye, we must be able to talk through business issues and work to resolve them.

Say instead, “I see it differently.” That phrase is a conversation-extender and fosters more dialogue around the subject matter. It’s not dismissive. In fact, it will likely lead to the other person saying, “Tell me how you see it,” and that is how we continue to move business forward. We can do anything and solve anything if we can just keep talking.

Duncan: Trust is the foundation of every good relationship and every productive team. What can a leader do to build trust between and among people of diverse backgrounds and perspectives?

McDonald: First, talk straight. Be honest, even when it’s hard.  Especially when it’s hard. When leaders speak in what I call “business buzzword bingo,” teams are left scratching their heads and asking themselves, “What are they trying to say?”  or “What didn’t they say that I need to figure out?”  People can handle the truth, even difficult truth. What they can’t handle is the runaround. In fact, nothing will erode trust faster than someone wondering “What are they not telling us?”

Secondly, use simple language. When you are direct and use simple language, there is nothing to hide behind. No one will wonder what you’re “trying” to say. It’s better to say, “I have some difficult news to share. We’ll be closing our Cincinnati branch in 90 days and jobs will be affected. Here’s what we need to talk about …” than “Due to our KPI’s not applying or being achievable in Ohio, we’re underperforming on the financial metrics of that branch, and we will need to re-purpose employees there.” 

In the first example, it’s straight-forward and the language leaves nothing to the imagination. When people don’t have a clear sense of what’s being said, they fill the gap in their heads with negative or false information. That can destroy team morale.

Duncan: Is diversity a fad or a “flavor of the month” topic that is popular now but will fade over time?

McDonald: No. Studies show that diverse teams outperform non-diverse teams and that diverse organizations have a competitive advantage in business. It’s part of the ongoing fabric of business now and will stay that way because it’s not just a “feel-good” initiative—it’s a proven business asset. Organizations that diversify their teams will win in every way—sales, profit, satisfaction, image, growth and more. That’s language that everyone understands.