by Gael O’Brien

Google is a great place to work. That, at least, was the conclusion of Forbes magazine, which earlier this year awarded the internet colossus the top spot on its list of Best Companies to Work For. According to Forbes: “Town halls held by black Googlers and allies, support for transgender workers, and unconscious-bias workshops (already attended by more than 70% of staff) help foster what employees say is a ‘safe and inclusive’ workplace at this hive of high performers.”

Marketing segmentationYet today, Google is also a company wracked by conflict, following publication of a memo written by a Google engineer who expressed the view that Google had fewer female engineers because men were a better fit for the role and the company’s liberal bias made the issue difficult to discuss. The engineer has since been fired.

This current controversy surrounding Google and its process is likely to grow even louder in coming days. The incident will be a major test of what community means to a leading global brand – and how the company acts to protect that sense of community.

The humanity of Community

Every organization likely experiences times when the spirit of community is strong: when employees and leaders come together to achieve a difficult goal, head off a crisis or celebrate an important success. However, often community is situational. It recedes when the sense of shared purpose and being on the same team is sacrificed to business-as-usual shifts into competing interests.

The problem is that when shared purpose disappears, what’s lost is exactly what’s needed to effectively address a host of workplace challenges, including the inevitability of conflict.

Community isn’t a pie-in-the-sky target.  It’s human investment: an essential component of what supports people doing their best work. It helps create authentic connection with customers and the achievement of long-term business success. At Google – and many other organizations – leaders, their teams and co-workers need to ask some critical questions: What does community mean for us? What do we want it to look like and why? What will enable our efforts to be successful and sustainable?

Community shows up differently in each organization, but common elements are present. “We are in community,” empowerment expert, Peter Block writes, “each time we find a place where we belong.”   We know that a spirit of community develops when people feel respected, seen, heard and cared about; when employees feel a manager supports their succeeding and the manger, in turn, feels supported by his or her boss; and when communication is trustworthy, flows freely and it’s safe to admit and correct mistakes.

Two examples:

Former Boeing and Ford CEO Alan Mulally made sustaining community routine business. In his turnaround of Ford, he started by uniting employees around Ford’s founding values and working together as one company.  He built trust by encouraging feedback, appreciating (not penalizing) honesty and supporting collaboration to solve problems and correct mistakes. “Working together always works” said Mulally in an interview.  “It always works,” he repeated. “Everyone has to be on the team. They have to be interdependent with each other.”

For Starbucks, its mission essentially depends on sustaining internal and external community to achieve shared purpose. A recent Fast Company profile highlights how Starbucks is building team, business, community and spurring economic development in economically challenged areas like Ferguson, Missouri.

The continually evolving process to “us”

However, when the sense of “we” becomes “we” vs “they” and not about “us,” it’s a red flag and the cause has to be found and addressed. Whatever is behind conflict that moves from constructive to divisive, it creates an opportunity for leaders and employees to begin or resume together non-hierarchical conversations in open, honest and respectful ways about the issue, company values and the impact on team or community. (A lot of training has been occurring in companies about making difficult conversations more effective.) This dialogue and process ultimately underscore “what we stand for” as a company.

Even though, for many companies, diversity and inclusion have become part of business strategies (impacting brand and performance),  bias remains a barrier. According to a recent New York Times article (based on a few dozen interviews), bias, along with isolation, loneliness and resistance to their “breaking into the circle of male camaraderie” help explain why there are so few women rising through the ranks to CEO. There are obvious implications for all minorities as well as white males who also don’t fit easily into that “circle.”

The issue of bias, how companies respond and its impact on the spirit of community will be an ongoing conversation at Google and elsewhere. In June 2017, CEO Act!on for Diversity & Inclusion launched an initiative in which more than 150 CEOs so far have taken the pledge for their companies “…to rally the business community to advance diversity & inclusion within the workplace by working collectively….” The leaders have agreed “…to continue to work to make their workplaces trusting places to have complex and sometimes difficult conversations about diversity and inclusion,” implement and expand unconscious bias education and share best and unsuccessful practices.

These goals contrast with a lack of civility and engagement in workplaces where the presence of community isn’t strong. Engaged employees, according to Gallup, “…are involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to their work and workplace.” When people feel isolated and disrespected, engagement isn’t likely. Gallup’s State of the Workplace Report, published earlier this year, indicated 70 percent of U.S. workers aren’t engaged and 51 percent of employees are actively looking for a new job. Workplace civility expert Christine Porath, has documented how incivility harms individuals and organizations (resentment and revenge are toxic) and how rudeness blocks the ability to work together. She indicates workplace incivility is “rampant and on the rise.”

When bias and other issues break down the spirit of community, working together through conflict and conversation is essential to fully understand what is behind a company’s values, purpose and definition of community. Only then can an organization truly address what is missing and begin the process of getting back to an “us.”

Gael O'Brien_2012_CropGael O’Brien, a Business Ethics Magazine columnist, is an executive coach and presenter focused on building leadership, trust, and reputation. She publishes The Week in Ethics and is a Kallman Executive Fellow, Hoffman Center for Business Ethics, Bentley University