What managers can do to create a sense of workplace community.
What should a manager first do when a workplace issue arises between two races and/or cultures and a workplace battle breaks out? How do you open the floor when warring parties simply can’t hear each other? How can you create a community in an environment where there is no neutral zone?
“Boundary Spanning Leadership”authors Chris Ernst and Donna Chrobot-Mason offer five key connecting tactics to overcoming a “clash of civilizations,” whether it’s between two different teams who are unable to see eye to eye; departments that are operating with each other like tectonic plates; or a level of incivility has grown so great that reputations and are jobs are about to be on the line.
Meet in a Neutral Zone. To suspend boundaries between groups, you need to take into account the physical environment. A neutral zone represents a location, environment, or space that is welcoming to groups on all sides of a divide. Is the location of choice more like “home turf” for one side or another? Is it accentuating differences rather than helping them fade into the background? The setting is important as it allows for cross-boundary collaboration to take root.
Create Attractor Spaces. Organizations are full of physical boundaries separating groups, functions, levels, and divisions. In most office buildings, floors divide employees by level; walls separate people by function; corridors serve to funnel people. Instead, consider community spaces, areas for brainstorming and problem-solving, serendipity areas and lounges that invite spontaneous, boundary-spanning conversations.
Use Communication Technologies to Link People Together. Company Yellow Pages, Yammer, and online team profiles provide ideal avenues for sharing person-to-person information. Odds are disparate team members defer to profiles with predetermined images in their minds: “finance guy,” “tech geek.” But studies show that these stereotypes fall apart when team members begin to learn more about each other and their individual tastes and likes.
Build Leadership Networks. Birds of a feather flock together. Just putting people together in the same room is not enough. Pair individuals from different stakeholder groups together and have them find a common ground. Use a high-tech approach to creating a more collaborative network. Corporate events such as internal brown-bag lunches and colloquiums (the celebration of an important milestone) are ways to bring people together. But they need to be paired with building trust-based relationships across boundaries.
Mix It Up Outside the Office. Friday afternoon soccer matches with rotating captains? Bowling and pizza? Yes, say the authors, if this is what’s necessary to ditch the formality and hierarchy of the office—and in many cases, the personal differences between employees—in favor of activities that can allow for bonding over common passions.
Chris Ernst is a senior faculty member at the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, NC. He integrates global research knowledge with global real-world experience to develop collaborative, boundary-spanning leadership capabilities within individuals, organizations, and broader communities. Ernst has served in multi-year expatriate roles in Asia and Europe, leads multicultural teams, and has traveled and/or worked in more than 30 countries across all regions of the world.
Donna Chrobot-Mason is an associate professor in Psychology at the University of Cincinnati, and director of the Center for Organizational Leadership. Her work is focused at the intersection of two fields, diversity and leadership, to better understand the challenges and opportunities that exist in leading a diverse workforce. She has coauthored five book chapters and serves on three editorial review boards for leading management journals.
Read more about “Boundary Spanning Leadership”at www.spanboundaries.com.