Managing Across Differences in Divisive Times

Grace Nicolette

This blog post from CEP’s Vice President, Programming and External Relations, Grace Nicolette, originally appeared on the CEP blog in September 2017. It is reposted here as part of our Rewind series.

Over the last decade, I’ve been on a journey in more deeply understanding how differences in cultures and values manifest in our personal and professional lives. As an Asian-American woman, I’ve been learning more about how my culture, faith, and upbringing impact my perspectives that I bring to relationships in the pieces of the world that I inhabit and influence — my workplace, my bi-cultural family, and my community.

In the wake of events like Charlottesville and the extreme political polarization we’re experiencing in the U.S., I have found myself longing for honest discussion of how we can all hold in tension standing up and speaking out strongly against tyranny AND also doing the critical — yet often tremendously hard — work of actually reaching out across lines of difference in our own lives. I believe the latter also includes reaching out to those with whom we don’t agree, or even with those who hate us.

Recently, stories like this one, about an African-American man who personally befriends KKK members and helps show them the way past hate, have challenged me to take seriously the work of justice, in all of its messiness and complexity. With the philanthropic sector’s rightly justified focus on issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion, I wish I could more deeply learn from how we actually bridge major gaps between differing cultures and worldviews. Simply knowing the “business case” of why different is better, the hard data on the yawning gaps of injustice that exist in our world, and having the best of intentions to embrace change sadly doesn’t get us to success. And examining how our own personal and collective cultural backgrounds and values shape our approach to these challenging times can enrich the communities we inhabit and serve.

That’s why I’ve found Jane Hyun and Audrey Lee’s book, Flex: The New Playbook for Managing Across Differences, so helpful. (Full disclosure: Hyun has served previously as my executive coach.) In the book, I’ve found vital connections between my role at CEP, the work that funders do with grantees (particularly in marginalized communities), and even my personal life. There are strong echoes of helpful conversations we’ve had at CEP acknowledging and dealing with our implicit biases, and also as we seek to help funders be as effective as possible when working across differences. Hyun and Lee are able to helpfully identify and draw out insightful dynamics that people of different backgrounds may experience in the workplace, which have easy applicability in other parts of life, as well.

Here are some of my key takeaways from the book:

Power dynamics matter. Of course! I was surprised — and yet perhaps I shouldn’t have been — to read that the authors place addressing power dynamics front and center for how leaders should adapt their approaches to managing across differences. “Diversity without integration and two-way learning between groups can actually act as a destructive force,” they write.

This resonates deeply with many of the findings in CEP’s research over the years about how funders can build stronger relationships with grantees and how nonprofits believe funders have room to improve when it comes to understanding the needs of the communities and people they seek to help. Yet, whether in our communities or in our personal lives, power dynamics often go unnoticed and unaddressed by the organizational leaders or other privileged groups who hold the power.

It’s far too easy to make assumptions about others and relate to their situations using solely our own cultural lenses. In doing this, we miss out on the richness of the perspectives, skill, and insights that others may bring to the table.

There is more than one way to communicate well. The authors draw upon studies in social psychology and anthropology to illustrate that there are often “recognizable patterns and traits that emerge among different cultural groups” when it comes to communication styles. Far from being stereotypes, these provide us rough frameworks for understanding what very real differences exist among people of different backgrounds. For example, differing traits include:

  • Direct vs. indirect communication
  • Expressive vs. restrained styles
  • Task-oriented vs. relationship- and trust- building attitudes
  • Individualism vs. collectivistic behavior
  • Low-context vs. high-context cultures

These nuances are vital if we are to truly communicate clearly and bridge gaps. Taking the last set of traits in the list, in low-context cultures, “little is taken for granted or assumed by each party,” “behavior and beliefs are explicit and defined,” and “relationships are more easily formed in a shorter span of time.” The authors note that, though not universal by any means, the predominant workplace culture in the United States tends to be on the low-context side of the scale.

Conversely, high-context cultures are “guided by a multitude of unwritten rules that are understood by others from your particular high-context culture but may seem opaque to others. Often this is a result of living in a group culture where relationships and age, status, and hierarchy, build and define the interactions within the group. Some examples of high-context culture in practice might include relying on nonverbal communications — such as body language, tone of voice, and the pacing of interactions — to get your point across.”

I can’t help but think about whether in philanthropy we are reaching marginalized communities as effectively as we could be with a predominantly low-context culture of communication that we unconsciously assume to be in the norm in all work environments.

Finding common ground. The authors note to “remember that this isn’t about worse or better, it’s about accepting difference without judgment.” “We aren’t saying you should abandon your preferred style…or advocate for one set of behaviors over the other,” they write. Instead, they encourage readers to think about all the opportunities that we have interpersonally, whether at work or in our communities, to add to our personal toolkit of ways to reach others effectively.

This does not mean compromising one’s values or changing oneself for the sake of others, but rather identifying potential shared experiences, common interests, or patterns of behavior that we may share with those who are different from us. In reading this book, I found that identifying these threads —  whether personally or in our current public discourse — may be the easiest to do, but, given our divisions, maybe the absolute hardest of all.

Perhaps, given our current climate, I simply need to make more space in my life for relationships with those whose perspectives and worldviews are very different from mine, so that I can seek to use some of these tools of understanding to take on the serious work of making peace. In addition to speaking out and fighting injustice, it’s what this moment surely calls for.

Grace Nicolette is vice president, programming and external relations, at CEP. Follow her on Twitter at @GraceNicolette.

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