As almost everyone has read, seen or experienced directly, our country has grown more divisive, angry and ununified in recent months. Hate-crime violence has hit a 16-year high, political polarization has increased, and a majority (55%) of adult social media users are “worn out” by political posts and discussions. In addition, the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated long-standing racial inequalities that have been rooted in systemic racism in our nation. We’re facing extreme challenges in our organizations and institutions where increased trust and unity are critical if we’re to make progress to address and solve these pressing dilemmas.
To learn more about how we all can reduce divisiveness today and work to build that needed trust and unity, I caught up this month with Dr. Laura Gallaher who has worked in the field of professional and personal development since 2005. Laura is an organizational psychologist, speaker, facilitator and executive coach and she is the founder and CEO of Gallaher Edge, which she started in 2013 and rebranded in 2018.
Her noteworthy career began after the Space Shuttle Columbia exploded upon re-entry in 2003, killing everybody aboard. Following the tragedy, NASA hired Gallaher and a team of organizational psychologists to change the cultural influences that were deemed to play a role in the accident. She worked for eight years to positively influence culture, develop leadership capacity, and improve organizational performance at Kennedy Space Center. Gallaher was also hired to help manage the change associated with radical changes in the performance management process and philosophy at Walt Disney Parks & Resorts.
At Gallaher Edge, Gallaher helps leaders across a variety of industries navigate changes and improve their organizational culture through workshops that build trust, grow self-awareness, and align strategically from the inside out.
Here’s what Dr. Gallaher shares:
Kathy Caprino: So, Laura, from your work and research perspective, why do humans struggle so much with change?
Laura Gallaher: We often hear that people resist change—but if I gave you $10 million, you’d probably agree that would change your life – so would you resist it? Assuming there’s no “catch”—no! You wouldn’t resist that. So it isn’t really that humans resist or struggle with change, it is that change tends to bring loss, and loss is painful. We call those losses the “costs” of change. When we hear that change is coming, we attune to the costs associated with that change. People only respond to their own perceived costs to changes in their lives. Evolutionarily speaking, we are programmed to avoid loss.
An endowment effect study by Knetsch showcases how we humans can be irrational in our own decision making. When participants in the study completed a task, they were rewarded with their choice of either a mug or a chocolate bar. About half chose the chocolate bar and half chose the mug. However, a different group was only given mugs as a reward after completing a task. When given the option to switch for a chocolate bar, only 10% of people took up that offer because most people had formed an ownership bond with their mugs.
When change is coming, it is valuable to remember that we are the ones putting the value on both the gains and the losses associated with the change, and we have control and choice over our own perceptions. Use that power of choice to shift focus—even change that initially feels unwelcomed will always bring both gains and losses.
The best way to deal with change is to focus on what will be gained. For example, unemployment is unfortunately skyrocketing due to the impact of Covid-19. If someone lost their job, the gain could be finding a different job that is better for their skills or lifestyle, or potentially the push they needed to start a business.
On the other hand, it could also be an opportunity to slow down and reconnect with their families or even themselves, helping them be the best version of themselves possible.
Caprino: During these times that are so difficult to handle, what tips and strategies can help us?
Gallaher: The environment today can make us feel that we’re in survival mode—constantly stressed, feeling like we can’t do enough and that we’re falling behind. While the news today is almost on a constant loop of negativity, we need to remember that we can still thrive in this environment. It’s all relative—it’s hard to believe, but there were days even pre-pandemic that were tough to get through, too.
We all evolved to be survivors, so our default mode is to survive—to shift into thrive mode, you’ll want to override your brain’s auto-pilot and retake control of our thoughts, your attitude and your chosen environment.
To do this, set aside some time for self-investment. Choose to practice gratitude multiple times a day and feel the meaning of it. In addition, choose to focus on some tangible action items. Limit how much news is watched if it limits your overall happiness. We have far more choices in life than we tend to realize. Everyone has a choice with what to do with their time, so determine where attention is given.
Caprino: What is the importance of the culture we’re in and how does that impact our resilience?
Gallaher: Culture has a huge impact on human behavior. It is where we learn what is OK and how we pick up on how things are done. The United States has a somewhat fragmented culture at this period in time, which means that different segments of the country have different ideas of what is OK and not OK. The pandemic and its impact on the economy is creating a scarcity mentality, which can lead people to start focusing more on themselves and less on others, which inhibits a society’s ability to collaborate and grow to reach new heights.
The flip side is that this pandemic is significantly increasing the generosity and desire to come together in other groups of people. Some are using this as a time to give to others when they see them struggling. Our healthcare workers, for example, are fighting every day for the lives of others.
Awareness of systemic racism has also elevated, and while it creates division and can trigger insecurity in white people, the murder of George Floyd has served as a catalyst to correct previous injustices. Now, the majority of adult Americans believe in the fight for what is right.
Many times it is darkest before the dawn, and when we can connect to a purpose (like fighting racism) and connect with each other (through generosity and caring for those who are ill), resilience abounds. Additionally, these experiences are creating deep wells of resilience that we will all be able to pull from in future life challenges. We are all more resilient than we think.
Caprino: Talking culture, so many of us are fighting with each other politically and ideologically, and in hateful ways that are devoid of compassion and understanding. How does that situation impact people and what can we do differently to thrive through this?
Gallaher: Underneath all of this is vulnerability. When we feel vulnerable and afraid, especially subconsciously, we tend to rely on defense mechanisms to cope. I believe that as humans, our most natural way of being is kind and compassionate, but as we are all raised imperfectly by imperfect humans to become imperfect adults ourselves, we each develop ways to defend ourselves against unpleasant feelings internally.
So in the face of human suffering, especially if there is a subconscious feeling of helplessness (i.e. I can’t do anything to fix this), people may respond in ways to reduce their negative internal feelings. This can look like blaming the victim (i.e. if I can convince myself that they somehow deserve it, then I don’t have to cope with the painful discomfort of injustice).
On top of that, our desire to feel good about ourselves means that our egos often keep us in a place of wanting to feel right, instead of wanting to learn. So, we often tend to dig in our heels in the face of opposition, preserving the good feeling about ourselves as being “right” and also a “good person.”
Thriving in these times stems first and foremost from our ability to practice self-acceptance and courage. Lean into the vulnerability that underlies the anger, accept that you are wrong sometimes (we all are), and focus yourself on learning and listening.
Societally, from the top, it would look like politicians learning how to communicate in a way that is less polarizing. We are all far more alike than we are different, and we all tend to agree on way more than we realize—we just don’t highlight the similarities and the agreements, especially when there is vulnerability and discomfort.
For each of us as humans, what we can do is listen. Listening is one of the most powerful tools to facilitate connection, change and growth. Listen like it’s not about you. Listen to your friend share their personal experience with racism. Listen to your employee talk about their fear of falling ill. Listen to your co-worker talk about the fear of the decision of what is best for their children.
It is harder to hate people up close, so move communication to phone or video call and away from text-based communication—like email—as often as you can. Remember our common humanity.
Caprino: Should business leaders encourage and tackle head-on the difficult and sensitive conversations that today’s times are demanding?
Gallaher: While business leaders regularly face the potential for difficult conversations, 2020 has brought this to a whole new level. From navigating racial conversations to deciding how to keep employees safe amid the global pandemic, people are experiencing difficulty separating their personal lives from the workplace. This may make leaders nervous, wondering how can I help employees feel heard, understood and safe during these times of uncertainty?
As a leader, this is the time to actively listen to what employees need and not shy away from topics that seem difficult to address on the surface. Do your employees have kids and now have to decide between working full-time or home schooling their children? Does an employee have Covid-19 or is close to someone with the virus? Is an employee passionate about bringing more awareness to the systemic racism in the United States?
Hear what employees are saying, but also note what isn’t being said. If what employees are relaying isn’t perfectly clear, follow up by saying “Tell me more; I want to understand,” or try paraphrasing what you think they’re trying to say.
If employees’ concerns haven’t been addressed yet, these are all conversations that business leaders need to be having now. Having an effective conversation means it’s time to get comfortable with the uncomfortable. These uncomfortable conversations create room for growth in the workplace. No one needs to know all the answers, but being willing to facilitate these conversations fosters a more inclusive organization.
More importantly, don’t let the conversations die out once the world regains a bit of normalcy. Create the space for conversations to take place within the workplace and mediate as appropriate to ensure these conversations remain respectful. Having an ongoing, open dialogue in the workplace leads to a culture of learning and understanding and can help eliminate issues, like systemic racism, nationwide.
Caprino: Why do people become more divisive and critical of each other in crisis like this pandemic?
Gallaher: There’s a saying that the best way to assess an organization is to try to change it. In your work culture or organization in this time of crisis, are people pulling together or are they dividing? Are people leaning into the change to identify how they can adapt, or are they digging their heels in to avoid the pain associated with change?
Fear can be dominating. People start to look out for themselves, so fear of losing money or power creates an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ mentality.
Most fundamentally, whether someone reacts in fear or unity comes down to trust. When people trust one another to act not only in their own best interest but also prioritize the interests of others, then people will unite even more in difficult times.
When trust has been damaged, or is lacking, people move into a state of assessing and evaluating the environment and people around them to gauge if they can proceed with trust, or if it is dangerous to trust others.
The best way to get through the ‘us’ versus ‘them’ mentality is to state collaborative intent and actively listen.
Caprino: What are the best strategies you can offer to help us thrive through dramatic change and uncertainty?
Gallaher: Leading through dramatic change and uncertainty is no easy feat, but the reward is monumental. Not only does it build trust, but it also increases productivity and efficiency.
First, as a human, it is valuable to remind yourself that even though your brain often triggers your body to react as though survival is genuinely at risk, most of the time, you really are OK—you can breathe, you are alive and you are going to be fine. Use your brain to overcome the fear-based visceral reaction that comes in times of stress and uncertainty.
Second, as a leader, it’s important to remember to take care of yourself. A crisis is a crucial time for a business that demands true leadership and the willingness to be decisive. Handle the pressing tasks first and practice self-compassion. When you take care of yourself, you are your best self for others; trying to put others before you means that they end up getting what’s left of you instead of the best of you.
When communicating with employees on these tough matters, project confidence and optimism while staying grounded in reality. Being authentic as a leader is powerful. Also provide the context people need for current events and what the business is going through.
These conversations need to happen on a consistent basis rather than just reacting as the environment shifts; employees want to hear from you more than you realize. Be intentional about each change put in place and recognize the impact that it has on the emotional state of employees.
Consider gains and losses in the face of change once again: a significant gain we can all take away from this time of uncertainty is that we’ve now been encouraged to speak with others and self-reflect in a way many of us hadn’t done previously.
Now that those doors are open, we can continue allowing ourselves to find comfort in the uncomfortable and have these conversations on a long-term, ongoing basis.
For more information, visit: Gallaher Edge
To build a more positive and impactful career and more effective leadership approach, read Kathy Caprino’s new book The Most Powerful You: 7 Bravery-Boosting Paths to Career Bliss, and work with Kathy in her Career Breakthrough Programs.