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3 Ways Managers Can Unite a Divided Workplace

3 Ways Managers Can Unite a Divided Workplace

Story Highlights

  • Workplace division can hurt productivity and affect culture
  • Reorienting your people around purpose and development creates unity
  • Employee recognition reaffirms an organization's shared values and goals

Recent Gallup polling shows that the American public is almost equally divided into thirds among conservatives, moderates and liberals when it comes to social issues. The presidential job approval rating is near 50%, as is Supreme Court job approval. Americans' confidence in nearly every major U.S. institution has declined in the past year, while their confidence in science has become increasingly partisan.

About four in 10 U.S. employees (41%) strongly favor their employer requiring COVID-19 vaccinations to enter the workplace, while 31% strongly oppose.

Employees can't even agree on where they should work. Of those whose job can be done remotely:

  • 3 in 10 would prefer to work exclusively from home long-term
  • 5 in 10 would prefer a hybrid arrangement (time split between office and home)
  • 2 in 10 would prefer working on-site

This means your workplace likely has some deep divisions within it -- either under the surface or, increasingly, out in the open.

And this is perhaps not surprising. Questions related to our health and to our identity cut straight to our sense of safety and belonging -- and that of our friends and family. One look at our Facebook feed or the news headlines, and the stakes can seem impossibly high.

At the same time, work needs to get done. Our divisions not only threaten daily productivity; they also threaten the trust and social bonds that managers have worked so hard to cultivate on their teams. Some managers have invested years in building a strong, positive team culture -- and for the first time, they are beginning to see that team unity unravel on the basis of personal beliefs.

Many managers are struggling to talk to their employees about intensely sensitive subjects. They are uncertain about which conversations are necessary and how to shape those conversations in a way that leads to positive, constructive outcomes.

When looking for "the right thing to say or do," here are three time-tested and evidence-based actions managers can use to keep their teams engaged, future-focused and unified during divisive times:

1. Reset and rally around your shared purpose.

The best solution to combating divisiveness among team members is uniting them around a shared purpose -- a mission they can all get behind.

Famously, some organizations with strong cultures have rallied their teams around the necessity of safety at work to ensure everyone gets to go home each day. Others have rallied around serving people in need or creating game-changing technological innovations. The more important your team's purpose is to each team member, the more united they will be and the harder they will work at persevering together in the face of adversity.

The turmoil of the pandemic has created a perfect opportunity to undergo a "team reset" -- a time for your team to step back and reimagine what they want to be known for and how they will best work together going forward.

A team reset is an opportunity to identify your purpose -- your true north -- and strengthen your team identity.

The big question is this: What are you going to unite around?

  • What is your mission?
  • What are your goals and values?
  • How will you measure success?
  • What are your team's strengths?
  • What are your areas for improvement?
  • What norms guide how you best work together?

One common purpose we can all get behind is doing great work for our customers -- to make the world better for others. You may not be inventing the world's next vaccine, but you are removing frustrations, meeting needs, solving problems and providing support. Everyone in the world is burdened right now, but your team's job is to make things better together, in big and small ways.

Team members may disagree on politics, on science, on anything -- but as long as they work together well, they can make the world better.

The focus, now more than ever, should be on your internal and external customers. Perhaps your customers need supplies shipped, questions answered, paychecks processed or strategies improved. Your team can't solve all their problems, but together you can solve one of them. Today.

The turmoil of the pandemic has created a perfect opportunity to undergo a "team reset" -- a time for your team to step back and reimagine what they want to be known for and how they will best work together going forward.

Managers play a key role in connecting everyday work to the greater mission of the organization. It may be time for managers to step back and reset their team. Help team members rekindle their passion for solving a company problem and remember that solving it will improve real people's lives. Bring customer stories to the fore and remind the team of past successes that made a difference.

2. Lean into development.

Divisiveness creates deeply personal distractions. Being future-focused can help: Everyone needs goals in their work life that keep them focused and striving to do their best work. Development is your best tool for keeping employees focused on working toward a bright future in a way that's highly individualized to them.

When it comes to development during the pandemic, employees are experiencing one of two worlds.

Some employees have been tossed into unexpected opportunities to learn and grow as business needs have changed seemingly overnight and they attempt things they've never done before nearly every day. They are gaining "experience" at record speed. But this development is unstructured at best, chaotic at worst. It feels like growth, but it's unclear where it's all going.

In contrast, other employees have been stuck doing the exact same daily routine, at hyper speed, for over a year now. They are simply trying to keep the proverbial trains running on time. They don't know when this ends, and they don't know where they are going.

At the same time, managers feel uncertain about the future, which makes them less inclined to talk to employees about what lies ahead. As a result, employees don't feel informed, so they are looking for a clearer, brighter future somewhere else -- hence, "The Great Resignation." To remedy this problem and lean into development, here are a few things managers can do:

  • Ensure every team member has a clearly defined development plan and career path. Everyone needs a plan. Ensure each person has a written "individual development plan" for achieving their most meaningful development goals, whether that means training to master a current role, learning new skills, receiving mentoring or gaining new key experiences. Ensure their plan includes a "career path" with potential options and criteria for career advancement.
  • Communicate more, and be honest. Having a hard conversation about where we're at and where we're headed is much better than no conversation at all. Be honest about what you don't know and what's not working. Don't oversell what you have no control over. Most people are looking for clear communication about expectations, changes and progress -- not perfect solutions.
  • Embrace experimentation. We are in an unprecedented moment where people are willing to try new things and accept that not everything will be perfect. Try new learning and stretch opportunities outside the usual comfort zone. Frame changes as experiments that will help us learn and adapt together.
  • Re-dream the future. Lives have changed. An employee who once desired a traditional corporate track may be seeking more flexibility and time with family. An in-office worker may have fallen in love with remote work. It's time to reset with your team members on what they want out of life.

3. Honor the interpersonal.

When sensitive topics arise, the natural response for some managers may be to lean out of their team relationships. We might call it "giving people some space." The fewer conversations we have, the fewer land mines we will hit and the safer we all will be. Or so the logic goes.

Another response is to simply tell people to focus on the work at hand. When we focus on the work, a lot of the irrelevant concerns fall away. If it's not specifically related to the work at hand, it's not important.

Unfortunately, the world outside of work continues to crash through our tidy boundaries. So rather than pull back, managers would be well-advised to lean further into the interpersonal part of managing to deepen team bonds and strengthen engagement.

During the first year of the pandemic, Gallup saw a marked increase in completed surveys over the phone and on our Gallup Access online platform. We saw that the frequency of manager feedback and coaching nearly doubled. This suggests that people want to talk. They want to share what's going on at work and in their lives. They want to be informed about what is happening and where we're headed. Many people are angry because they feel invisible, unheard and unappreciated.

Although managers can't solve all of the world's problems, they can provide the only neutral ground that some people have. Managers can listen to what people can't say to their families or their coworkers. And listening, even if there are no great solutions, can help clear the air so employees can focus effectively on work.

Parting thought: Use recognition to promote accountability.

Once we've rallied around our common cause and honored individuals by listening to them and helping them craft brighter futures, we still have a need to regularly bring people back to their performance expectations. External distractions are coming on a daily basis, with each new historic event, each new media cycle. How can managers guide teams back to their "rally point" in a way that's natural and meaningful?

Rather than pull back, managers would be well-advised to lean further into the interpersonal part of managing to deepen team bonds and strengthen engagement.

Ongoing employee recognition, in formal and informal ways, is a great tool for creating social habits that point to our shared values and goals. It makes people feel noticed, appreciated and valued for doing great work. It's a reminder of our performance standards, celebrates people who role model excellence and gets the conversation moving toward how we can all be our best in the future. It also steers conversations toward what's working rather than everything that's not.

But perhaps most importantly, it points to the ways that we, as a team, have already transcended our divisions to achieve what we could not have done alone. And that's something we can all celebrate these days.

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Ben Wigert is Director of Research and Strategy, Workplace Management, at Gallup.

Ryan Pendell contributed to this article.

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