Fighting the good fight: How to give diversity a chance in a time of discord

Carin-Isabel Knoop
12 min readDec 20, 2022
photo shows two boxing globes in the fight of the century — discord vs diversity
Into the ring (Credit Antonio Sadaric)

Very few people oppose diversity — at least openly –but so few truly accept and leverage it in organizations. We are adding diversity to the workplace faster than we are training managers and employees to harness its power.

Today’s high job turnover and hybrid workflows challenge the ability of teams to work together productively. To do so requires finding common ground and surfacing different opinions. How do you make sure you are hearing divergent points of view in your professional and personal lives? More importantly, how can you practice and role model listening for better business outcomes?

At its best diversity of thought can create better workplaces and lead to better business outcomes. By listening to diverse experiences and ideas, management has more options to consider to solve a specific problem.

However, as Harvard Business School Professor Frances Frei and Anne Morriss wrote, “Simply populating your team with diverse perspectives and experiences doesn’t always translate into better performance. In fact, the uncomfortable truth is that diverse teams can underperform homogeneous teams if they’re not managed actively for differences among team members.”[i]

But managers can set the stage for productive disagreement and conflict. Discord is a failure of management — not diversity. This affects organizations of all sizes, especially those dependent on innovation, ideation, and perspective-taking. There is no innovation without experimentation, and psychologically unsafe workplace settings characterized by frequent discord yield low fruition creativity.

We also cause real human damage, especially to individuals who are made to feel like token hires, which lowers morale and sets the stage for tensions to escalate. “If company profits come at the price of our humanity, they are costing us too much,” noted a recent HBR article, “and if diversity initiatives fail to reckon with that trade-off, they will amount to little more than rearranging the deck chairs on a sinking ship.”

In this post, we share what we learned from being on the FromTheExperts (FTE)™ show and ideas from science, psychotherapy, and practice to harness the potential of diversity. Reflection questions are in the Appendix.

Why it is harder to listen and feel heard

photos show a reptile in a blazer holding a cell phone. it is seated at a corporate table
Reptilius Digitalus (Credit: Antonio Sadaric)

Factor 1: We still have not learned how to manage our reptilian brains. Our brains are wired to scan for danger, and we are still operating with the same basic brain equipment to respond to threats — and disagreement is increasingly perceived as such. After all, people disagreeing on social media often rapidly resort to verbal abuse, since there are minimum consequences — and even often rewards — for such behavior. Our neocortex, which separates us from other animals, gets deactivated in conflict, like brakes failing in a car. It becomes harder for us to process rationally. Others cannot process either. In addition, we are often out of control — in conversation and otherwise. Our conscious mind processes 50 bits/second, while our unconscious mind can process up to 11 million bits/second. Finally, fMRI’s show that people’s brains react differently to disagreements — causing cognitive disharmony.

Factor 2: Most of us might exhibit signs of anxiety and depression. According to the U.S Department of Health & Human Services, three-quarters of U.S. workers in a 2021 survey reported at least one symptom of a mental health condition (anxiety, depression), an increase of 17 percentage points in just two years. This makes us more prone to cognitive traps such as catastrophizing (“the world is coming to an end”), future telling (“I will never amount to anything”), mind reading (“Robert hates me”), filtering (only good or bad information), and the fallacy of fairness (“I suffered and so I deserve a break”).

Factor 3: Our online behavior is bleeding into our off-line interactions. Exposure to social media conflict and aggressive commenting without consequences is changing behavior. We see more reactivity and short-circuiting of the mind endorsed by shorter attention spans: Consuming and reacting to sound byte news and clickbait and liking articles for headlines. We take the quick like/dislike mode and snap judgments about non-virtual lives. We fall victim to “Amigdala Hijacking.” This is crossing generations. Young parents push strollers while scrolling their phones while their child seeks eye contact. Soon these parents give the phones to infants. Unfortunately, the more time toddlers and pre-schoolers spend on electronic devices, the higher risk of negative impacts on their social, emotional, and cognitive development and sleep quality and quantity.

Factor 4: There is much more diversity at work. There are now five generations at work and more race/ethnic/gender diversity and sexual orientations than ever before. This can be a source of a great wealth of experience or create stress of being “the other” for those in the minority and of being displaced or cast out for those in formerly dominant groups. So we seek belonging outside the firm, which might be in some echo chambers, identified and suggested by our preferred social media algorithm presenting us what we –literally and figuratively — want to see.

Factor 5: 40% of us are exhibiting attachment styles that tend to be avoidant and anxious. Children form different attachment styles and respective self-efficacy levels during their formative years (e. g. Fraley & Roisman, 2019). Family structures, rituals, and dynamics have changed, and combined with technological advancement, they altered childhood experiences. Avoidant and anxious attachment styles are more present than ever (e. g. Strand, Vossen & Savage, 2019). This in turn can impact the leader-member dynamic (e. g. Mikulincer & Florian, 2000) determining workplace relationship quality (e.g. Maslyn, Schyns & Farmer, 2017). Insecure attachment increases the chance of suffering from negative attribution bias. Attachment styles alter stress responses and preference for communication intensity.

Factor 6: We are ruled by our “inner dictator.” Most of us still battle with what Phil Tetlock of the Good Judgment project called “the inner dictator.” It’s a reflex that activates confirmation bias (to prove that our idea was the correct one) and triggers the desirability bias (making it easier for us to see what we want to see). We confuse our beliefs (what we hold to be true) with our values (what we deem important). Adding social media trends into the mix, the self-narrative we create about ourselves becomes even stronger. Our personal brand becomes ego on steroids, which perceives diverse thinking as an attack on its market dominance. We can easily become entitled and arrogant.

Adam Grant’s Think Again echoes the themes of task conflict versus relationship conflicts (in which we ban people from our personal and social lives or ostracize them at work when we disagree with one of their ideas). Unless we are aware of these tendencies and monitor them, we turn our opinions into our identities — and do the same for others.

What can we practice as counterbalance

photos shows a potential medicine cabinet with a white cross on red
A taste of our own medicine (Credit: Antonio Sadaric)

Although the aforementioned might paint a picture of hopelessness, being aware of these effects already puts you ahead of undesired outcomes. If you know what drives your behavior and those of others in the workplace, your preparation to deal with them has already started. Here are a couple of more battle-tested ideas to consider:

Practice: Be humble. Humility can be defined as “a modest or low view of one’s own importance” — this does not mean that we do not matter, nor does it mean that our ideas do not matter. But it is useful to remember that you have been wrong before, might be wrong now, and will be wrong many times in the future. Part of being humble involves controlling our egos. Our ego wants to win and wants a hit. This is why we get sucked into social media — to feed our indignation and affirmation monsters. But remember the stakes — who is right and wrong and what is lost? Can you move from predator to benefactor? Are you contributing to the conversation vs just wanting to be right? Understand that being a referee instead of being a fighter can help foster psychological safety for future discourse. Feigning humility can have the opposite effect. Take part in the introspection necessary to practice true humility.

Practice: Be mindful. Definitions of mindfulness involve being less reactive, being aware of ourselves and others, and approaching the world with curiosity. Being mindful and showing others how to be can help avoid conflating the person with the argument or point of view being voiced. It can also make us aware of attribution bias, wherein we attribute more weight to what we consider to be a person’s character rather than situational factors that may be shaping their behavior. Can you pay attention with kindness and curiosity? Can you practice active listening long enough to let the person express themselves? Can you start by agreeing that one can disagree, but realize this is just the start?

Practice: Remain polite and respectful. There are, of course, situations, where we can and perhaps should lose our tempers, and anger should not be stigmatized. Swearing can be a source of stress relief. However, as the authors of Getting to Yes point out, the major reason to respect others is that it works. This may mean not interrupting someone but also not tuning out. Multi-tasking, when someone is speaking in a meeting, is disrespectful. Dismissing them out of hand is, too. Ask instead: can you help me understand what you mean by that comment? This is especially important in writing when there is no tone and is often interpreted based on situational specifics and previous experiences. Break the vicious cycle by allowing human interactions to take place outside the written format.

Practice: Honor body language. Body language (kinesics) is one of our tools of communication. This can include raising our voices. When engaged in debate, watch your non-verbals and also try to match body language. Nod your head and ensure your eyebrows are not raised, or your forehead is frowned. Do not cross your arms not roll your eyes or sigh loudly. And please do not hover in an effort to dominate or just shut down and walk away physically and emotionally by taking out your phone.

Practice: Remember the Dunning-Kruger effect: We have a tendency to underestimate how much other people contribute to the discussion and overestimate our own contribution. This impulse to inflate our own contributions is sometimes legitimate but can lead to cognitive dissonance. If we think others contribute less than we do, and we aren’t properly rewarded, we perceive injustice. It triggers a particularly strong emotional reaction, which easily boosts tensions, as we are no longer dealing with an argument but fighting for ourselves in an effort to correct the injustice. People pounce when triggered, which sometimes even results in violent language. This leads to more discord and even conflict feeding a vicious cycle. Unresolved conflict tends to lead to contempt, which easily destroys relationships in the long run.

How to lead discourse away from discord.

(1) Set the stage. Just as the Catholic church had an official Devil’s Advocate, consider assigning someone to always take a contrary position when an important decision is to be made, say, a new product launch. “The Red Team” is another way to think about this tactic, in which you stress test ideas by having team members assume the role of the opposition. It is important to note that is almost never okay to ambush your team with this tactic. It should be clear who is playing this role ahead of time to maintain a trusting, non-threatening environment to exchange ideas. A related practice is making it mandatory for people who defend an idea to attack it respectfully as in the Lincoln Douglas debate rules which have debaters take alternating sides to an issue in a series of debates. This practice should include leaders and managers. You can also identify natural mediators and embrace differences in temperament. Some of us are just better at bridging cognitive gaps.

(2) Tame the peacock and elevate the budgie. Some people prance around and hog the limelight. To take power away from a dominant team member, the team talked to the whiteboard instead of to each other. There are other ways to give more voices a chance. For example, to make it more comfortable for more quiet individuals to speak up, you can explicitly ask them to chime in at the next team meeting or brainstorming session. You can also use polls in meetings or encourage the use of chat for those who don’t like to speak on video.

(3) Ask. The power of diversity comes from diverse thought. We must embrace discomfort and the challenges of new environments. Freakonomics discusses the science of sensitive questions. We must examine for ourselves, the groups we shape, and the organizations we help lead: What conversations are we avoiding? With whom? What are the dynamics involved? For example, women might hesitate to talk about childcare without fear of reprisals, families don’t talk about caring for elderly parents, and employees don’t know how to talk about stress and mental health. Managers looking to surface these conversations must question: What is the right forum? Can/should HR handle these issues or are they the purview of a psychologist, counselor, or facilitator? Could a broader use of coaching resources and tools help employees examine their patterns and become better at engaging with others?

(4) Analyze. Use tools to better understand when conversations disappoint. One such tool is the “left-hand column technique” designed by Chris Argyris, Professor Emeritus at Harvard Business School. Participants break down what was said, what was thought to be said, and what was thought about what was said. This can help break conversations down into their essential parts, and analyze intent and avoid miscommunication. Think about the pros and cons of various communication channels, email vs Slack for example. A Stanford researcher studies how “psychological distancing” can be used to build trust and encourage tolerance. Another approach can be naming the elephant in the room — what is on everyone’s mind, but no one dares say it.

(5) Educate. We learned of a company explicitly training managers to learn about their stress response and share how different they are. Education creates a common language, builds empathy, and shows that the leadership cares. Do we allocate leadership development funds for these purposes? Do we promote those who exhibit these traits?

What is your goal? To deliver your point? To crush the ideas of others? Or are there other — potentially more valuable — things worth pursuing?

It's helpful when debating with colleagues about a new strategy or the implications of a company decision that we each acknowledge that the other party is genuinely interested in reaching viable/good solutions. Without that foundational belief, we are not arguing in good faith — which is poison for generative debate and discussion. To avoid this, focus on the details in others’ language that would suggest that they have genuine concern/care for the issue. Do your best to internalize that concern.

When you hear the bell, enter the ring.

We all hate to be on the losing side of a conflict, but we are all creating it. But we can learn different patterns. We can move from being preachers and prosecutors (“I am right and you are wrong”) and politicians (“I think you are wrong but I will pretend you are right to ingratiate myself to you”) to scientists who exhibit humility over pride and pick curiosity over conviction. Like boxing, this may be the sweet science.

Many issues are not so black and white. It is just easier to see them as such — yet the path of least resistance is rarely the best. In your organizations and relationships, work to identify the root cause of discord, often it’s a symptom of a deeper issue at hand.

Appendix: Reflection questions

How are your managers and team members engaging and get the most out their team’s diversity for better outcomes?

As a manager how are you navigating team conflict? What’s working and not? Why do you think that is?

How do you solicit diversity of thought and create an environment we can learn from each other?

We are bringing diversity into the workplace, but how does your team understand it and help it thrive?

Do you understand what happens in your brain when you ignore, dismiss or outright dismiss someone whose opinions you question or reject? What is the cost to you and that person?

How do you make sure you are hearing divergent points of view in your professional and personal lives?

What tips and tricks do you have to remain open to such divergent views? What have you seen working and not working?

Are we really creating more diverse thinking?


This post was compiled by Antonio Sadaric, Mel Martin, and Carin-Isabel Knoop. We build on a 2021 post: “To support diversity, we need the courage to learn to disagree and discover different aspects of each other.”

Thank you John Hurter for building and sharing a platform that creates the space and delivers authentic interactive content experiences. You and your team live up to your tagline: “At FTE we connect you to industry thought leaders and experts, sharing key insights on pressing challenges with live interactive discussion groups, designed to accelerate positive flow and exploration of new ideas, solutions, and relationships, helping you reach your opportunity faster!”

Carin-Isabel Knoop

Harvard Business School Executive Director, passionate about human sustainability@work. Pragmatic optimist devoted to helping all who care for others.