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HBJ: Embrace Diversity to End Company Tribalism

Posted By: John Sweney on August 16, 2019

Brookwoods Group CEO John Sweney wrote an Opinion/BizVoice article for the Houston Business Journal which appeared in the print edition August 16, 2019.  (Click on the HBJ image to read the article as published.)

It’s in our tribal nature as human beings to gravitate toward people who are most like ourselves. One of the best unintended social experiments happened on the movie set of the 1968 classic The Planet of the Apes, a sci-fi tale about a future Earth where humans are speechless beasts and other primates – intelligent apes – had become dominant.

Roddy McDowell as Galen, the chimpanzee

Charlton Heston, the movie’s star, talked about “an instinctive segregation on the set” among the actors wearing full primate makeup and costume. He said, “not only did the apes eat together … the chimpanzees ate with the chimpanzees, the gorillas ate with the gorillas.”

Racism, sexism, homophobia, and religious intolerance are among the ugliest forms of tribalism because they expose a sense of superiority over others (“my team” is better than “your team”). Through human history, tribal bias has been expressed along a spectrum of behavior, from secret whispers to world war and everything in between. But with countless new “social media” communications platforms, each offering both anonymity and global reach, people can now attack one another in horrifically tragic ways we could never before fathom.

As business leaders, we can help change things.

By adopting diversity initiatives as part of our corporate cultures, we can begin to bend tribalism into a positive force by opening our employees’ eyes and minds to the amazing value each of us brings to a common purpose. This isn’t merely “tolerance”, which plays to just the “optics” of diversity; this is about employees truly embracing and respecting each other’s differences because it makes them all better for doing so. That in turn spurs genuine, lasting growth for the companies that foster true diversity.

Many companies that lead their industries know this. Accenture, Novartis and Medtronics,[i] for example, seek out people and suppliers of various races, colors, religions, creeds, genders, national origins, ages, abilities, orientations, and experiences in different relationships and disciplines. Their leaders know that having a patchwork quilt of dramatically different people seeking the same goal is both the right thing to do AND good business. 

Your company, too, can reap the spiritual and financial benefits of workforce diversity when chasing opportunities, solving problems and navigating unfamiliar or challenging situations. Every positive encounter reveals something about the individuals involved and enhances the collective skill, knowledge and experience of the entire group.

For companies struggling with the question of adopting sincere diversity initiatives in their organizations, there is a saying that goes, “People like what they know more than they know what they like.” Toxic tribalism thrives because there is a familiar safety within a group. But there’s another saying that goes, “Like the turtle, you’ll never get anywhere unless you stick your neck out.”

John Sweney is co-founder, president and CEO of Brookwoods Group, a Texas staffing and recruiting firm based in Houston that is certified both as a Veteran-owned business by the National Veteran Business Development Council (NVBDC) and an LGBT-owned business by the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce, NGLCC.

(Thanks to Mark Hayden of Oak Interactive agency for coordinating the article.)