Surprising, But Not Strange, Bedfellows

I had the privilege of spending this past Tuesday in Washington, D.C., with Elan Babchuck at the Religious Freedom and Business Foundation’s national gathering, Dare to Overcome.

500-plus people gathered at The Catholic University of America (They like the “The” capitalized, as was explained to me, because they are the nation’s only Catholic university owned and operated by the Church in Rome), and what a mix of people it was.

The meeting brings together senior executives from companies including Google, Accenture, Sanofi, American Airlines, Citibank, and dozens more, with leaders in the field of faith-connected ERGs — Employee Resource Groups. There were corporate chaplains, HR professionals, DEI Directors, and more. They are a cross-section of Christian Evangelicals, Progressives, Muslims, Jews, Bahai, Atheists, and more. They were Black, White, Hispanic, and Asian. They came with political views ranging from MAGA to AOC. In other words, this was, by most usual expectations, a collection of strange bedfellows. But the longer I was there, the clearer it became that, while surprising, the mix was not strange at all.

This was a meeting whose goal was to nurture people’s ability to bring themselves to work in ways that honor their particularity while heightening their collegiality, all in the service of greater productivity and creativity.  The fact that it cut across so many lines that usually divide people from each other, was what made it surprising, but should not make it strange. Unusual but not strange, and certainly not of those of us who celebrate pluralism as more than a necessary concession to diversity but as the embodiment of non-zero-sum thinking.

To be sure, there is a long way to go in this work, in many ways still in its infancy and always at risk of becoming an excuse for individual groups and faiths to nurture whatever grievances they may have. In other words, like any new domain of possibility, the potential for both risk and reward is especially present, but there was so much goodwill in the meetings that I left far more excited about the latter than concerned about the former. I also left with a number of takeaways regarding the opportunities to minimize the risks and maximize the rewards.

I was intrigued by how much work can be done carving out a possibility between polarization, which those gathered want to combat, and finding consensus, which seemed to be the presumed alternative to polarization. Why, I found myself asking any number of people, both in sessions and in the halls, are those the only alternatives? What about helping people to hold unresolved differences and ongoing disagreements in healthier and more productive ways? The response to my questions was overwhelmingly positive, to be clear.

In fact, a senior HR executive from Citibank asked me about what advice I might have regarding people who want to see Citi “do something” beyond supporting people’s ability to gather and talk about their issues and interests, even when they are potentially divisive. I responded that, in my opinion, holding space in which people can talk to one another and even listen to one another more respectfully and productively IS doing something. In fact, given that Citibank is there to be Citibank and not to make foreign or domestic policy, it is probably the most important thing they can do! She actually hugged me and then immediately pulled back, saying, “I am not supposed to do that!” I told her it was no problem and that I was glad to have helped.

And finally, I left the conference realizing how both personalization of the problem — dealing with the felt needs of the person in front of you more than the “larger” issue which has them upset, e.g., the war in Israel and Gaza — and depersonalization of the problem — helping people to appreciate that the issue is not directed at them personally — can both be incredibly useful tools in helping people to feel honored at work, and capable of honoring others as well.  Further reflections on that to follow.

There is no “end” to this reflection because, in many ways, it is just beginning, so stay tuned.

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