The principles of conflict resolution can help build antiracist workplaces

A Bernie Sanders supporter makes a peace sign at a rally for Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I- Vt., Wednesday, March 23, 2016, in…
A Bernie Sanders supporter makes a peace sign at a rally for Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I- Vt., Wednesday, March 23, 2016, in…
Image: AP Photo/Michael Owen Baker
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When after-work hangouts at a Nigerian nonprofit turned out to revolve around drinking, the director of the office knew he had a culture problem.

In 2016, Rajendra Mulmi was director of the Nigeria outpost of Search for Common Ground, an international conflict-resolution organization. His team’s mission was to help people bridge the religious differences that often lead to conflicts in a country where the population is evenly divided between Christians and Muslims.

As it turned out, the country’s larger tensions were reflected in his organization’s Nigeria office. Of its roughly 40 employees, only three were Muslim, and only one of them was at the manager level—the other two were drivers. And so Mulmi set about trying to diversify its employees and create a more inclusive culture, drawing on the principles that informed Search for Common Ground’s mission (and also recognizing that a lot of observant Muslims abstain from alcohol).

“We need to have the dividing lines we work with represented in our team,” he told the group of predominantly Christian employees.

The conflict-resolution principles he drew from in the process may offer insight to the many companies that are currently reflecting on how to combat racism in their own ranks and have more productive conversations about racial and cultural differences.

A new Nigeria team

Over time, Mulmi brought the representation of Muslim employees up to about one-third of the overall Nigeria team, while the leadership was made up of two Muslims and two Christians.

Inclusivity was a more nuanced endeavor. Mulmi recalls learning about those after-work alcohol-centric outings, led by a manager who was an expat. “One of the ways that he socialized with staff was to drink—go to some local places and get some bottles of beer and suya,” a grilled chicken snack popular in Nigeria.

That worried Mulmi: “If you spend more social time with a group of people, you become close to them,” he notes. In other words, through these gatherings, the manager was more likely to bond with Christian employees, which could prompt him to favor them at work.

Mulmi spoke with the manager, who said he didn’t know what other kinds of outings to offer that would also appeal to the Muslims on his team. Mulmi’s response? “Ask.” From then on, they were able to find ways to socialize that didn’t leave anyone out.

A related issue arose when Mulmi found that Christian and Muslim staff were going to separate places during lunchtime each day. There was a logical explanation for this: People from the majority-Christian southern area of Nigeria were heading to restaurants that served their preferred regional food, while people from the majority-Muslim north were doing the same. Still, the everyday habit served to reinforce cultural divides.

Once the group discussed the lunchtime split openly, they agreed to bring lunch into the office once or twice a week and eat there. That way, they could eat what they wanted while still spending time together.

Mulmi, who is now the regional director for Asia at Search for Common Ground, summarizes the nonprofit’s philosophy this way: “Understand the differences, but act on commonalities.” Here are a few other ways the nonprofit’s approach to conflict—both internal and external—might apply to all kinds of workplaces.

Do a deep, detailed conflict analysis

Before Search for Common Ground attempts to initiate a dialogue across divisions, “we do a deep dive to understand the nuanced dynamics and sensitivities,” says Nawaz Mohammed, the nonprofit’s Sri Lanka director.

Under the same principle, it’s important for business leaders in places like the US or Europe, for example, to educate themselves not only about the history of white supremacist culture and the ways that racism can play out in the workplace, but to gather information about the specific problems, microaggressions, and patterns of discrimination that may have arisen at the organization in the past. Gaining a more in-depth understanding of how racism has affected people at one’s own organization can help leaders figure out what to focus on first, and what practices might be most effective in addressing them.

Consider starting affinity groups

Initially, Mohammed says, the Sri Lanka team tried to go straight into conflict-resolution dialogues between participants from the country’s Buddhist majority and Muslim minority. But the team quickly learned it was better to begin with “mono groups”—people from the same background—before they asked the two groups to engage with one another.

The mono groups gave facilitators a chance to help participants work through stereotypes and suspicions they might hold about the other group, which might have otherwise led to a hurtful and counterproductive conversation. It served as an opportunity for participants to “put out the questions and concerns they have, so those are cleared from their minds and hearts,” Mohammed says.

Some organizations, including the nonprofit Fractured Atlas, have found a comparable benefit in race-based caucuses, wherein white employees gather to examine their own privilege and learn more about white supremacy without placing the burden of their education on colleagues who are people of color. Under such models, the white caucus is accountable to the POC caucus, and groups meet regularly to do collective anti-racist work.

Find opportunities for experiential learning

Search for Common Ground tries to help build empathy through what Mohammad calls “experiential learning”—for example, hearing a firsthand account from someone who was present during one of the 2019 Easter Sunday church bombings in Sri Lanka, or visiting a site where an ethnic Tamil family was “disappeared” (and, as the Sri Lankan government has since confessed, killed) under state custody. These provide an opportunity for people who have not been personally affected by these events to “walk in others’ shoes,” Mohammed says.

Experiential learning is also a common tool in anti-racist work, for example through role-play scenes meant to help people practice speaking up when a colleague makes an offensive remark, or reading or watching personal narratives of people of color, followed by group discussion. According to learning theorist David Kolb, people learn most effectively when they have a concrete experience, reflect upon it, analyze and draw conclusions from the experience, and put those conclusions to use in a new context.

Be “conflict-sensitive”

Conflict sensitivity, Mulmi explains, is an approach that ensures “any actions you do are not exacerbating existing tensions or creating new conflicts.” It’s a first do no harm sort of mindset.

To illustrate the concept, Mulmi offers a hypothetical example of a well-intentioned group that digs a well in a Nepalese community to serve its drinking-water needs. Nepal, like India, has an ingrained caste system—and so imagine that the group digs a well in a location that is more favorable to the higher caste, which in turn blocks lower-caste members from accessing the water, which prompts the lower-caste group to start attacking the elites.

Being conflict-sensitive, he explains, means imagining the ways such a scenario could develop beforehand, including by consulting marginalized groups about how potential moves or changes could affect them.

Take a non-adversarial approach

Search for Common Ground tries to help people to stop thinking of conflicts as a zero-sum game, Mulmi says, “switching the paradigm from you versus me to you and me versus the problem.”

A lot of the time, the root of the conflict among groups he’s worked with can be boiled down to something like competition for scarce resources. Once people realize that, he says, they can understand that they have a “shared narrative”—the desire to protect their livelihoods and lifestyles—and come up with collaborative action plans about how to address the issue.

In the case of anti-racist efforts in the workplace, it may be helpful to emphasize the idea of a shared goal such as dismantling white supremacy and diversifying leadership. Research suggests that people are more motivated to participate in diversity and inclusion initiatives when they feel they have agency and the opportunity to be part of a positive change.

A non-adversarial approach also means that all parties are encouraged to ask questions of one another—in the right settings and with an eye toward sensitivity, of course. That goes back to the point Mulmi made over the course of his efforts to unite the team in Nigeria. He recalls telling employees: “Let’s help each other understand one another and not make things up or take things for granted. It’s okay to ask and discover each other.”