The Damaging Politics of Polarization


US vs. Them

Public comments by politicians can bring issues such as anti-immigration and racism to the forefront in a powerful way. It’s easy to have an emotional reaction, whatever ‘side’ they’re on. However, it may help to understand what’s happening in an objective manner by looking at it through the lens of an assessment tool I often use: The Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI). This model identifies the developmental path an organization or individual might take to greater intercultural competency.

Navigating Differences

Diversity is a multiplicity of differences. I work with a wide range of organizations who want to go beyond the numbers of achieving diversity, towards intercultural competency. I help them navigate the reality of the natural differences they would encounter when bringing different people to the team, to work better together, to become more inclusive. The goal of intercultural development is to move organizations or individuals from a monocultural to an intercultural mindset.The IDI helps to identify where the organization is on a continuum so they can plan for further development.

Election Campaigns

The Alternative Right, or Alt-Right, has emerged in support of Donald Trump’s platform, generating a lot of tension and discussion. This is because they see the outcome of diverse cultures coming together as conflict, not inclusion. Any discussion about equality and inclusion is being called  “political correctness.”

The Alt-Right wants to be able to say anything about anyone, whether it’s true or not (i.e: all Mexicans coming across the border are drug dealers). This creates conflict and tension.

A tenet of the Alt-Right is anti-globalization – opposition to global ideas and objectives. Another is anti-egalitarianism, which projects the notion of equality as a fairy tale. We have been seeing this movement across Europe, and whether Trump wins or not, the seed is planted.

But this way of thinking isn’t isolated to the U.S. presidential campaign. In Canada a candidate (Kellie Leitch) for the leadership of the Conservative Party has proposed screening immigrants for “anti-Canadian values.”

Leithch’s recent proposal doubles down on her earlier suggestion during the last Canadian general election for the creation of a “snitch line” for Canadians to report the “barbaric cultural practices” of other Canadians. The Conservatives lost that election after a clear rejection by voters of the polarizing effects of such ideas.

Polarizing Orientation

The Alt-Right is fundamentally polarized as defined by the intercultural development continuum. A Polarization orientation has an ‘us versus them’ view of different cultures. Individuals in Polarization believe their way is superior to other cultures and often act defensively as they feel threatened by anything different than their way of doing things. 

The kind of claims and statements Donald Trump and Kellie Leitch makes are classic examples of a Polarization orientation. Many of Trump’s supporters have become more vociferous in their convictions due to the mainstreaming of this way of thinking. The nature of the Alt-Right’s way of thinking is to separate people into different camps, so they actually move people into Polarization.

Diversity Logo

Appearing to be Accepting

Based on polling results Trump, however,  may have pushed things too far for some American voters. Now he seems to be scrambling to appear more accepting of cultural differences.

Acceptance is an orientation along the intercultural development continuum; which means recognizing and accepting differences, and being eager to find ways to bridge those differences.

Trump’s latest outreach to African Americans indicate he’s trying to look like he’s in Acceptance.  However, moving directly from Polarization to Acceptance is too big a leap to be feasible. Intercultural competence is a developmental process, and acknowledging common cultural traits needs to be worked through first. And based on his statements, Trump is nowhere close to bridging the gap. Therefore, his gestures come across as opportunistic, desperate and inauthentic.

Lessons Learned

What would Polarization look like in an organization? Simply put: people would take sides. Diversity would feel “uncomfortable.” There would be conflict and tension. Cultural differences would be seen as a threat. Individuals with diverse perspectives and approaches would not bring their whole selves to the workplace. The organization would be less productive.

The first step towards an intercultural mindset would be to create an environment of “curiosity” about differences within the organization. But it would require commitment of leaders, time and resources, and professional guidance.

Find out where your organization lies on the Intercultural Development Continuum and what it takes to progress.



Ferguson Report: A How-Not-To-Do-It Guide To Law Enforcement

Police line do not crossReading the Department of Justice Report on the Ferguson Police Department is a lot like reading a “How-Not-To-Do-It Guide” to law enforcement. The findings of the DOJ are shocking in the extreme. The report highlights so many violations of human and civil rights of the residents of Ferguson – mostly African Americans – that it would be hard to make this stuff up.

It’s a long list: abuse of power, excessive force, abuse and unsafe use of TASERS, harassment, racial profiling, indiscriminate use of police dogs against residents – some as young as 14 years old,

Officers violated internal policies and procedures even when they must have known they were being video taped or that evidence of wrong-doing would be found if an investigation was ever conducted. But they knew there would be no investigation. Supervisors and even elected city officials turned a blind-eye to wrong-doing; clearly nurturing and enabling a police culture of fear, intimidation and misdeeds.

According to the DOJ, differential policing was driven by “intentional discrimination…racial bias and stereotyping….This evidence includes: the consistency and magnitude of the racial disparities throughout Ferguson’s police and court enforcement actions; the selection and execution of police and court practices that disproportionately harm African Americans and do little to promote public safety; the persistent exercise of discretion to the detriment of African Americans; the apparent consideration of race in assessing threat; and the historical opposition to having African Americans live in Ferguson, which lingers among some today.

Rather than preserving public safety, police officers in Ferguson became revenue generators, de facto tax collectors,  for the city and black residents became an easy source of income because of the multiple citations imposed on them, often for minor offences.

The DOJ says: “FPD’s lack of systems to detect and hold officers responsible for misconduct reflects the department’s focus on revenue generation at the expense of lawful policing and helps perpetuate the patterns of unconstitutional conduct we found. FPD fails to adequately supervise officers or review their enforcement actions.”

Among the remedies announced to the media by the Mayor of Ferguson to rectify this toxic environment is diversity training.  But it will take more than “diversity training” and hiring a few black women to solve this problem. Obviously the Chief of Police must go, but so too should the City Manager and Municipal Judge who presided over court sessions and handed out sentences. And that’s just for starters.

diversity linkagesPerhaps now is a good time to remind or inform the leaders of Ferguson and its police department what diversity and inclusion ought to look like.

Diversity, inclusion, and intercultural competence are three essential pieces of an integrated whole that helps to create and sustain a productive organization – one that values all individuals and allows the organization to interact effectively with the many “cultures” it serves.  A diverse, inclusive, and interculturally competent organization has the following characteristics:

  1. An ability to provide services effectively to a diverse array of cultural and identity groups
  2. Full inclusion in the decision-making and social life of the organization (or community) for members of all cultural and identity groups
  3. Capacity to continuously upgrade knowledge about cultural and identity groups
  4. Resources and incentive systems are aligned to support organizational intercultural competence

This has been called the “integration and learning” paradigm of diversity where organizations actively seek input from members of multiple identity groups and cultures in order to improve work processes as well as product and service offerings.

Diversity is the variety of differences among people and can be defined as the representation of many different cultures or perspectives in the organization; it should be viewed as the “floor” or foundation for a longer and deeper process.  Enriching recruitment systems to broaden feeder pools, linking selection processes to skills, and ensuring a fair chance of employment for all cultural groups is an important step, but it is only a first step in a much longer and more involved process.

Inclusion means that all individuals are welcomed, accepted, and valued in the organization.  Many different voices are sought in important organizational decision-making processes, and members of all cultural groups are fully included in the informal networks and social life of the organization.

Intercultural Competence is the capability of individuals and organizations to appropriately and authentically shift cultural perspectives and change behaviours when encountering cultural differences. It has four components:

  • Awareness of one’s own culture and how capability to navigate cultural differences
  • Knowledge of the different dimensions along which cultures differ
  • Skills for interacting effectively across cultural differences
  • Attitude of valuing cultural differences

The ultimate vision of diversity and inclusion should be:  “diverse teams of people (diversity) have the skills, knowledge and attitudes (intercultural competence) to provide inclusive environments for their stakeholders (inclusion) in order to create synergistic knowledge-sharing processes that drive organizational productivity and innovation.”

The Ferguson Police Department and the residents its officers swore to “serve and protect” have a long road ahead. As the DOJ states, “Restoring trust in law enforcement will require recognition of the harms caused by Ferguson’s law enforcement practices, and diligent, committed collaboration with the entire Ferguson community.”