Not that long ago Ellen posted on social media a short clip of her monologue from her TV show about the concept of being friends or friendly with people whose views are not your own. She was specifically responding to being ‘called out’ for chatting and joking with ex POTUS George W at a sporting event. Her clip, which went viral, garnered likes and loathes aplenty on social media. It’s been a pretty well- trodden path so you might wonder why I’m sticking my toe in? I want to approach the issue from one of the workplace.
Photograph: Kyrre Lien / The Guardian
The unique contribution that the internet, and social media more exactly, has made has been the access to connections and links to celebrities and influencers (yes they are different). Before the web we had friends, acquaintances and fellow workers. Those outside of this sphere were pretty much unknown to us so their views, ideologies and perspectives were neither visible to us nor could we care. We had no point of connection. Everything about this equation has changed. Ironically, by the magic of algorithm, while our total number of peer to peer connections has increased exponentially, the breadth of these relationships has shrunk almost in an inverse proportion. It’s called the echo chamber and it’s a widely acknowledged phenomenon.
Perhaps now the only place where you might get a clash of views and ideologies in person is in the workplace where people come into direct contact with the purveyor of opposing views. This could be in the lunchroom, at the water cooler or the smokers’ ‘den’. Strangely this last group seem more aligned than most. Perhaps the common bond of smoking, where the whole world’s ‘agin’ you, overrides other schisms that might separate them?
I’m not aware that the polarization we see online is manifesting itself to anywhere near the same degree in the workplace. I would posit that this is due to the fact that we engage fellow workers in the flesh. Our interaction with them involves all our senses and our conscious and sub conscious mind. We know more about them on most occasions than just their political beliefs, or where they stand on say a woman’s right to choose, or the extinction marches. We know about their children, or aged parents, their birthdays, their hopes and their aspirations. We know where they went on holiday; we know where they want to go on holiday. In other words, we form a more rounded and nuanced view of them than just their views on a particular subject that may be existential to me, but of much lesser import to them. Online that fact alone may make you bristle, but in the flesh we get to see a more holistic picture.
We probably know more intimate details of fellow workers now than in the workplace of years ago. Perhaps occasioned by the social media culture of sharing, I think there is a greater willingness by people to put their perspectives on display in the workplace. This is partly occasioned by the workplace as well, reference Qantas support for same sex marriage or Rugby Australia’s support for diversity. On social media the clash of perspectives, beliefs and ideologies manifests itself all too often in a toxicity that at the very least burns bridges. Up the other end of the spectrum you get ‘unfriended’ or worse still trolled. I’ve read where grown-ups have ‘unfriended’ people they have known since early school years because a scant review of their social media has suggested some misalignment of beliefs. The irony here is that on occasions this must have been not long after searching out that old classmate or early boyfriend/girlfriend and re-establishing contact. Seems a lot of wasted energy!
One of the best ways to ensure that the echo chamber approach doesn’t adversely permeate the workplace is to create trust. Trust is an essential element of the internet. We have needed to suspend our natural suspicion to make large swathes of the internet work. We have moved pretty comfortably from buying clothing or other items in a bricks and mortar store where generally, due to geographical proximity, we can go back and demand our money back, to a cloud-based store where we seem to have few means to get redress if things are not to our satisfaction. Try finding a contact phone number on a website nowadays. And yet internet shopping is increasing year by year. Trust therefore has become an essential element in allowing this to happen. As Rachel Botsman explains, trust is the basis upon which the share economy rests. You allow strangers to stay at your house when you are not there based on a rating system that shows you how dependable they are. Similarly, you buy goods from people you’ve never seen – eBay – based on the ratings system of other buyers. So the internet is capable of having transactional relationships that work very well without the layer of ideology to get in the way. All you need to know is that both parties in the equation are safe, reliable and responsible and have been able to demonstrate this on a number of previous occasions. Sales might be quite different though if in your selling profile you had to answer a quick ‘fast five’ on where you stand on a range of social issues.
In the world of work trust is established in a much more sophisticated way. We don’t have a third party star rating to guide us, we have our own sets of beliefs, experience, biases and ideologies to assist with that. We also have structures of acceptable behavior in the form of policies and procedures and we have the underlying culture of the organization, most often set by the leadership. Brene Brown outlines seven elements of trust in her book Dare to Lead. These are worth repeating here:
Boundaries -You respect my boundaries and when you’re not clear about what’s okay and what’s not okay, you ask. You’re willing to say no.
Reliability – You do what you say you’ll do. At work, this means staying aware of your competencies and limitations so you don’t over promise and are able to deliver on commitments and balance competing priorities.
Vault – You don’t share information or experiences that are not yours to share. I need to know my confidences are kept, and that you’re not sharing with me any information about other people that should be kept confidential.
Integrity – You choose courage over comfort. You choose what is right over what is fun, fast, or easy. And you choose to practice your values rather than simply professing them.
Nonjudgment – I can ask for what I need and you can ask for what you need. We can talk about how we feel without judgment.
Generosity – You extend the most generous interpretation possible to the intentions, words and actions of others.
These sound lofty, but elements of all these need to be in place to make the world of work actually…work! Imagine if the same set of principles could be amplified into the dealing of people on the social media. If we are to de-polarise the world we need to bring more understanding, compassion, kindness and forgiveness to our interactions on social media. If we could, the impact would be amazing. It all starts with what Ellen said in her monologue. Being nice is more than just being nice to people you like. And YES it is possible to be friends with people whose views you don’t necessarily share. If we could just stretch to this, as Ellen is want to say on her show, ‘Everyone gets a prize!’