July 08, 2022

How To Make the Workplace a Safe Space for Discussing Social Injustice

  • Ben Gallagher educates audiences on the three questions that will illuminate an organization’s theory of change and help develop an innovative workplace culture.  
  • Culture cannot be siphoned into one department. It is an evolving functionality in every workplace that requires daily participation from every department. 
  • To promote equality and safety, traditional cultural values need to grow and expand for the future of remote and brick-and-mortar workplaces. 

Living in an “always on” world is a new and unique challenge for today’s business executives. Every day we have the opportunity to grow our understanding of humankind — and to become better leaders, we must sift through the ever-evolving emotions and mentalities of our teams.  

As employees participate in water cooler conversations and candid chats on Slack, they share a range of experiences and emotions with one another. To ensure leaders can keep morale high and employees engaged, they must learn the answer to one seemingly simple question: Who are the people working at my company?   

Ben Gallagher, co-founder of B+A, a behavior research agency helping corporations build proactive and individualized company cultures, is a seasoned expert on culture functionality. The biggest dose of dopamine he can supply to fellow executives is learning about the people they lead. 

Figuring out how to tap into your workplace culture and find new methods of motivation is paramount for leaders. Currently, just 36% of U.S. employees are engaged in their workplace. So how do you engage the other 64%?  

In an episode of the TribePod podcast, Gallagher dives into the questions he asks to understand an employee's daily experience, sharing insight he’s offered to leaders of companies such as Nike, Beats by Dre and Google. 

The B+A approach highlights a simple theory: Learn about the individual and you will better support the team. Gallagher further explains why this simple approach can feel intangible, and discusses how to promote or define remote workforce culture, why developing and implementing a theory of change is essential and why space for social justice discord must exist in every business. 

Diversity Equity Inclusion

The Theory Of Workplace Culture 

Several things come to mind when one hears the word "culture." For some, culture is still an abstract concept that can't be defined beyond benefits such as health insurance or paid vacation days. For others, workplace culture includes daily lunches, enticing office furniture and company swag.  

Recently, company culture has expanded to include what is appropriate to discuss at the water cooler and what is better left to private conversations outside of company time. There is a growing concern, however, about the impact of discussions or feelings expressed behind closed doors. If and when leaders turn a blind eye to these conversations, there is a potential for dysfunctional mutations within teams.  

Gallagher and his team dissect the culture spectrum by collecting and unifying data and returning it as a presentation that leaders can adhere to or adapt. When Gallagher and his team are approached with new business, they seek to answer three primary questions:  

  1. What's going on in the world around us?

After years in marketing and business, Gallagher found the business world to be reactive. No one wakes up overnight and puts "develop culture" at the top of the agenda. His team asks, what has happened recently, internally and internationally, making this an urgent or pressing matter? Starting the conversation here will highlight research and insight into current employee behaviors.  

  1. Where do we go next?

After assessing outside influences, Gallagher and his team dive into the company's internal organs, pinpointing and honing in on a strategy that will define future visions and company ambitions. Creating this outline contributes to building a plan and sheds light on the company’s chosen direction.  

  1. How do we get the best from our people?

Clients generally approach B+A due to two themes: The first falls under a company crisis, and the second is using change to create an opportunity. In both instances, the company needs to know how to motivate its people or attract new candidates 

Gallagher believes every individual — leadership included — is a creature of habit. Thus, "we invariably, no matter whether it's to stop the problem or take advantage of the opportunity, ask the question, What does this mean for me? 

Getting the best from employees is central to understanding what organizational culture supersedes B+A's involvement. Leaders must understand the full picture of an employee’s journey and big or small impacts on their environment. To answer this question further, Gallagher's team will also ask the following questions:  

  • How do you create the right working environment?  
  • How do you think about team dynamics, behaviors and structures so they give the very best to teams? 
  • How do you further enable teams to deliver on their ambitions?  

The biggest lesson Gallagher promotes is to believe in each employee and highlight how one person contributing and leading by example will encourage others to follow suit. 

The Role of HR in Cultivating Culture  

B+A believes every person is responsible for culture. It can't be funneled into one department from top to bottom or left to right. Gallagher believes culture is formed through the everyday interactions, behaviors and actions of the entire team. It would be impossible for a singular department to be the face and spirit of culture because it would leave out the most crucial piece: everyone else 

There are, however, some circumstances where HR should take the lead. While dealing with organizational change or navigating a crisis there may be structural or legal processes, which Gallagher concedes HR should spearhead.  

In circumstances where the responsibility is shared company-wide, B+A has identified three ways to encourage everyone to participate in cultural evolutions and initiatives: 

  1. See the individual: Identify, celebrate and share who you really are as a person with your team. Be authentically yourself. 
  2. Unite the change: Find the commonalities and the bonds on the team. Recognize strengths and weaknesses and build trust. 
  3. Tackle the challenge: Unite as an open and vulnerable team, working together while remaining honest about contributions and expectations.  

Diversity Statement Examples

How a Leader Encourages Social Discord and Development 

With an increasingly polarized social and political society, employees are entering the workforce under duress. As we continue to have more access to information, there is a growing inability to strategically disconnect from news outlets or social media.  

This inability to “turn off” impacts employee views and daily performance. It can also present itself physically as team members with shorter fuses, breakdowns in communication with teams or a higher demand for PTO and mental health days. Regardless of its manifestation, the desire for social discord is becoming a central theme for employees wanting more control over their workplaces.  

As creatures of habit, overnight change is a figment of imagination, but it will lubricate motivation. Employees might form new committees or rally for increased community initiatives and visibility. The first thing that's crucial to remember is this is everybody's problem, Gallagher says, not just the employees who have been closest to the issue.  

Now more than ever, it is paramount for leaders to hold themselves accountable and re-examine the culture and values of their professional domain. Instead of silencing new voices, Gallagher points out how leaders can encourage a social discord that offers solutions instead of just space to speak. While your employee's words are ringing through hallways or social media platforms, what is the echo and imprint at your workplace? 

"We are collectively waking up to the systemic racism and racial injustice that exists in many parts of modern-day society. And that needs to be fixed fundamentally," Gallagher says. In an increasing amount of civil liability and human autonomy cases, leaders have to guide tough discussions.  

Sometimes, it might be more productive to welcome a third-party mediator. Now more than ever, company leadership must align with the values they preach, be sensitive and realize this conversation might not be one they can spearhead. It is more impactful to step back and admit to your team that you are also educating yourself. 

As Gallagher says, you need to start from the principle that it is everybody's responsibility. Addressing social justice issues in the workplace requires challenging conversations that result in action plans: Nowadays, discussion alone is not enough. Every organization, regardless of industry, must be willing to commit to real, lasting change and real action in this area, not just something that exists in the short term.  

Putting Theory Into Practice 

Gallagher’s mentality is simple: He and his team prioritize the employee experience and make it central to their judgments and action plans. His approach shows how far we’ve come from the idea that culture equates to tangible perks and enticing work facilities.  

A leader today will listen before highlighting what makes their employees stand out. They will hold space and maximize strengths instead of punishing weaknesses.  

Gallagher believes culture is infinite rather than finite,  and encourages teams to dig deeper into the granularity. Going forward, Gallagher looks towards the endless potential of unifying teams worldwide, and easing professional and social division one company at a time.  

 This article is based on an episode of TribePod, a HR community podcast by Proactive Talent, a recruiting, employer brand and retention consulting firm. Subscribe via Apple, Spotify or wherever you listen to podcasts for more insight into best practices in human resources.  


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