By | Dave Ulrich | Speaker, Author, Professor, Thought Partner on HR, Leadership, and Organization
Almost universally, United States President Biden’s inaugural speech on “unity” received positive reviews. These excerpts capture the essence of his message:
…to restore the soul and secure the future of America requires so much more than words. It requires the most elusive of all things in a democracy: Unity. Unity.
Uniting to fight the foes we face: anger, resentment, hatred, extremism, lawlessness, violence, disease, joblessness, and hopelessness. With unity, we can do great things, important things.
I know speaking of unity can sound to some like a foolish fantasy these days. I know the forces that divide us are deep and they are real,
…without unity, there is no peace — only bitterness and fury. No progress — only exhausting outrage. No nation — only a state of chaos.
While political unity may be a stretch in a political climate fraught with extremists, the need for unity also exists in organizations. Business and HR leaders who can turn aspirations for unity into daily actions will create a more inclusive work setting for employees, greater product innovation leading to strategic reinvention, increased customer commitment, higher investor confidence, and enhanced social citizenship.
So, let me suggest six tips for making unity happen in your organization.
1. Recognize that unity requires disagreement.
Unity comes from convergence that enables action, rapid movement, and shared identity. People with common goals and values move quickly to respond to opportunities. Unity also requires divergence that facilitates innovation when people with different perspectives engage in respectful dialogue. Unity without diversity leads to groupthink; diversity without unity leads to unfocused action.
As a leader, you need to demonstrate the ability to converge (focus with simplicity), then diverge (expand options with complexity), then converge, then diverge, and so forth. Over time, this process (see figure) enables you to get the innovation benefits of complexity and the focus benefits of simplicity.
2. Lead with empathy.
Unity requires leadership empathy. Empathy comes from caring for employees as people. When your employees feel understood, they in turn are more likely to understand and serve each other and customers. Empathic leaders are not only authentic, visionary, and inspirational, they also show compassion for others, allow disagreements to foster innovation, and create organizations where employees want to give their best efforts. To express empathy avoid all or nothing assessments and thinking, seek to discover why employees do what they do, engage with employees in their (not just your) work setting, view conversations with them through their eyes, and get to know and welcome their personal stories.
3. Focus on and appreciate the positive.
As a leader is it easy and tempting to emphasize what has gone wrong to improve through learning, grit, and resilience. At times it is even more important to envision what can go right to create a better future. Engage employees in identifying shared values that will shape your organization’s future. Even in the midst of the pandemic crisis, a leader openly asked employees to envision what they saw as a possible future based on the core values and strengths of the company. This positive vision set a unified direction for what could happen. The leader then celebrated progress towards the shared vision. When you focus on what is right and express gratitude for positive progress, you help your employees feel better about themselves. Words of appreciation through personal notes, public recognition, or private positive conversations create goodwill. Gratitude needs to be real, not fake and sincere not staged, but thanking and appreciating others for creating and enacting a shared future builds a more unified community. Be unified and positive about what can be more than analytical about what has been.
4. Commit to make others better.
As a leader, use your power to empower others and your strengths to strengthen others. To empower and strengthen others give them stretch assignments or tasks, share information with them about challenges and ask them what they think should be done to solve the challenges, delegate decision making responsibilities to them, offer them training and tools to acquire new skills, and let them present recommendations to others. Your ultimate success as a leader will be the generation of leaders who follow you. When you grant your leadership progeny opportunities for growth, you express confidence in them and create a unity of followers who will lead into the future.
5. Increase diversity among your cohorts.
A thoughtful leader once told her new team members, “I am going to put you on my team because you disagree with me. If you and I think alike, one of us is not necessary; and it won’t be me! But when we go public, we go with one voice.” Invite those who are NOT like you to join your team (see the classic example in Team of Rivals) so that you hear alternative points of view. If you surround yourself only with people who are like you or who are not as qualified as you, you are doing a disservice to yourself and your organization. Select people who complement your skills, then give them a voice to move forward. If you disagree, do so without being disagreeable or contemptuous by making sure you understand clearly others’ point of view. Reflect back to them: here is what I heard, did I hear that right? When others feel accurately heard, you can have unity of action even when you don’t fully agree. As a leader, you often make the final decision, but when people feel heard they are more willing to act on the decisions you make. Unity through participative management does not require consensus, but respectful dialogue.
6. Create organizational practices that reinforce unity.
Make sure that your employees’ experiences with HR “touchpoints” are positive where your employees feel your organization caring for them through affirming HR practices. For example, demand fairness in hiring and promotion decisions; explore different points of view in discussion forums (e.g, social media, town halls); articulate and commit to shared values and actions as part of formal development and informal learning, align total rewards to ensure the right behaviors and outcomes, create and implement the “right” culture as a unifying agenda; and personalize terms and conditions of work.
7. Other? Your ideas?
Is “unity” a noble aspiration? Yes! Is it possible? Maybe. Does it require hard work? Obviously. Can it be accomplished? Definitely, with the right leadership and HR actions.