Bloomberg Law
March 17, 2023, 8:00 AM

Change the Conversation About Wokeness, Othering, and Belonging

Michael Thomas
Michael Thomas
Jackson Lewis

Compassion and empathy.

Unfortunately, we haven’t been listening with much of either. Often, we rely on confrontation rather than collaboration when discussing the topic of belonging and inclusion in the workplace.

It is understandable if we disagree on how to create inclusion and belonging. The problem is that we no longer listen to one another—instead, we label each other. For example, instead of listening to a person’s point of view, we might quickly label someone’s belief as “fake news,” “right-wing conspiracy theory,” or “woke.” We then associate that person with our connotations of those terms without thinking. We “other” that person, defining them as ignorant and outside our “in” social group.

That’s as true in the workplace as in the rest of society. And that offers employers both a challenge and an opportunity.

Seeking Belonging

Most workers want to foster inclusion and belonging for all but might disagree on how to get there. For example, White men in the workplace want to feel like they belong and are valued, and might view DEI initiatives as excluding them.

Similarly, women and Black employees want to feel valued and included, and might view a failure to discuss race or gender in the workplace as leaving them behind.

All groups ultimately want the same thing: to belong, contribute, be productive, and feel valued. It is from that common set of values that employers can reverse othering even when there is disagreement.

Coming From Fear

It helps to recognize that we often “other” out of fear—fear that, unless I defend myself against you, I will somehow become irrelevant or disregarded. This idea often is based on a belief that if your perspective takes hold, then I am no longer relevant. Someone else’s experience of belonging, therefore, is contingent upon you being silenced.

Othering can take root when some workers feel that something is being taken away from them if another group is gaining recognition in the workplace. Embracing belonging and inclusion sends the message that there is space for everyone.

Unfortunately, DEI initiatives sometimes are caught in a political game of “othering” that often puts coworkers at odds and creates an “us vs. them” mindset. For example, some believe that advocating for diversity is a grave threat to the American way of life because it divides Americans by race.

Others believe that if you do not acknowledge and discuss inequities, certain groups will continue to be marginalized, which they say is a serious threat to the American way of life. In reality, both groups want the same thing: belonging.

Othering Beyond DEI

Othering is not just about DEI. Recently, a politician grouped one political party’s views as team “normal” and the other as team “crazy” and asked people to align themselves with team “normal” or “crazy.” Clearly, there are a broad range of views worth considering in both team “normal” and team “crazy,” but these labels put up a wall that blocks empathy, compassion, and listening.

Why do we believe these stories or messages that create “othering?” We create our walls by watching, listening, or reading sources of news or information that maintain distance between groups with different beliefs. This allows us to stay hidden from each other and avoid being challenged or rejected on our viewpoints. We all want to be unguarded and accepted for who we are.

Change the Conversation

What can company leaders do to reverse the trajectory of othering and foster belonging and inclusion in the workplace?

They can embrace their own vulnerability and give their workforce permission to do the same. They can understand their own stories and feel comfortable removing their own masks. Good leaders recognize that as the world gets smaller through globalization and rapid changes in technology and demographics, fostering a shared sense of belonging is not just the right thing to do, it is simply good business.

Creating belonging is not about being “woke.” It is about embracing a world and workforce that is increasingly more diverse. And it means having the courage to embrace vulnerability and build a culture of belonging for everyone—even when we disagree.

This article does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg Industry Group, Inc., the publisher of Bloomberg Law and Bloomberg Tax, or its owners.

Author Information

Michael Thomas is a principal of Jackson Lewis, where he advises clients on workplace diversity, equity, and inclusion issues, including conducting trainings on understanding and removing unconscious bias and micro-aggressions.

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