INTERVIEW: The Business of WE - with Laura Kriska
Issue 49: Advice for leaders and organizations on bridging cultural gaps
This week, we are excited to feature an interview with Laura Kriska, whose book, The Business of WE discusses how to bridge culture gaps in organizations. Her book strives to provide leaders the tools to foster connections between people of diverse backgrounds—helping them to thrive as organizations become more inclusive and productive.
Kriska is an expert in cross-cultural relations. She was born in Japan and raised in Ohio, where she received degrees in Japanese and writing. Her unique upbringing piqued her interest in Japan-America relations and eventually inspired her to write the Business of WE to share what she has learned about bridging gaps between groups with different social and cultural identities.
In our interview, Laura shares how positive change can be facilitated when people have a genuine wish to close a gap and the ability to reflect honestly upon themselves. She emphasizes the different social identities people can have and argues that groups can work together effectively despite differences.
What does your book teach us about group dynamics?
The Business of WE is based on predictable us versus them dynamics that humans experience every day. Mets versus Yankees. Sales versus Marketing. Columbus versus New York. Everyone has encountered these types of culture gaps so they can relate to the feeling of being a ‘them’ or an outsider.
One of the important lessons of the book is that us versus them gaps are not equal in their importance. Gaps fall into three categories: Inconsequential (e.g., Ohio State vs. Michigan), Consequential (e.g., Black vs. White), and Game-Changing (e.g., Ukraine vs. Russia).
The Business of WE teaches readers how to narrow gaps that cause misunderstandings, lost revenue, lawsuits and other negative outcomes. The process of narrowing gaps requires accessing invisible data about another cultural group or person. It is face-to-face interactions of increasing depth that provides necessary access to that invisible information and to deeper, accurate understanding.
Living a homogeneous life while working and living in an increasingly diverse and interconnected world leads to problems because decisions and behavior are based on assumptions rather than facts. If all the people in your immediate circle look, sound and pray like you do, then chances are high that you will default to superficial information rather than accurate data about the lived experience of people around you.
What was the most surprising thing you learned as you were writing the book?
Organizations cannot mandate that individuals open their hearts & minds to change. But organizations can (and should) create opportunities to foster collaboration across difference, model broader inclusion and reward the positive outcomes that do occur when people collaborate across difference.
Change can be facilitated with two free assets that most people already have access to: 1) a genuine wish to close a gap and 2) the ability to reflect honestly (with humility) on themselves. We don’t need exhaustive or complicated plans to foster a broad definition of who belongs in any particular institution.
Also, when asked, most people will step up to the challenge of self-reflection in order to work more collaboratively with others in their organization. When I ask professionals why they do not take action to build connection with someone who is different, the #1 answer is "I don't know what to do or say." The #2 answer is, "I worry about doing or saying the wrong thing." This is the reason it is so important for organizations to provide the opportunities and safe spaces for engaging in these important conversations.
What is the biggest unanswered question on this topic going forward?
In a recent survey with a group of college students who participated in a WE-building Initiative where they were asked to examine gaps in their own lives, I asked what they had learned. One student replied, “How often we see us versus them and don’t do anything about it.”
The biggest unanswered question is 'Are we going to do something about these gaps that we all see?'
We all experience us versus them gaps. We see these gaps yet often do not take substantive action. This is especially true for those on the ‘home team’ who often do not experience any direct pain or loss due to inaction. (I would argue this is why, after more than 50 years since passage Civil Rights laws, there is still negligible improvement in racial equity in the United States. There has been no penalty for failure to act on those on the white majority ‘home team.')
Other unanswered questions are: Will leaders in organizations prioritize collaboration and unity? (especially leaders who identify with the ‘home team.’) Will individuals choose unity? Will they do the work to develop trust with those who are different in order to change our trajectory away from division and toward sustained unity?
Do you have any practical advice for people who want to apply these ideas?
The F.R.E.S.H. Approach is a practical solution to building lasting trust across us versus them gaps by deliberately changing one choice in day-to-day life that leads to a face-to-face interaction with someone outside your familiar group. It might be the choice to sit next to someone new at a community function or going to a post office in a different part of town. Anyone can utilize the F.R.E.S.H. Approach (Family, Religion, Eating, Shopping, Hobbies) which starts with one small gesture. Check out my NYC 2018 TEDx talk on this topic.
News and updates
Dom joined Michael Ashford on The Follow-Up Question to talk about overcoming groupthink and harnessing identities for good. Dom also spoke with James Healy on The B-Word about how organizations can deal with identity silos and the importance of understanding group dynamics for leadership.
Jay started his own TikTok account! Follow @jayvanbavel on TikTok for fresh social psychology content.
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Catch up on the last one…
And in case you missed our previous newsletter featuring an interview with Dr. Carl Erik Fisher about his book, The Urge: Our History of Addiction, you can read it here.