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Beyond Culture Wars and Grievance Politics: A Framework for Constructive Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging

As organizational leaders seek to advance diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) initiatives, they often encounter seemingly intractable conflicts over issues related to gender, sexuality, race, and political ideology. These "culture wars" and "grievance politics" can divide workforces and obstruct progress. However, research suggests a path forward that moves beyond accusation and defensiveness toward empathy, solutions, and shared purpose.

Today we will explore a framework for constructive DEIB efforts grounded in research, yet aimed at practical application. By emphasizing common ground over differences, understanding over accusation, and cooperation over conflict, leaders can guide their organizations past polarization to realize the benefits of diversity.

Understanding the Conflict

Before proposing solutions, it is important to understand the societal tensions that often inhibit DEIB efforts. Researchers have studied the psychological factors that contribute to "grievance thinking" and "victimhood culture" on some sides of these issues, as well as "backlash effects" and defensive reactions on others (Sullivan & Landau 2017; Lukianoff & Haidt 2018). People across the ideological spectrum feel increasingly politically isolated, misunderstood and unjustly maligned (Pew Research 2015). When opposing viewpoints clash, conflict often arises from perceiving others as uncompromisingly "wrong" rather than partially right from their own perspective (Maoz et al. 2002). Additionally, diversity fatigue and fears of reverse discrimination can undermine buy-in for DEIB initiatives (Plaut et al. 2011).

Common Ground and Shared Purpose

To overcome such tensions, research suggests leaders must establish areas of common ground and shared purpose. People tend to cooperate more when they see others not just as opponents with conflicting views, but as fellow citizens with overlapping concerns (Druckman & Nelson 2003). Studies show emphasizing inclusive national or organizational identities over divisive social identities can build tolerance and collaboration (Huddy 2001). Reminding individuals of their shared commitment to ethical and performance goals like justice, fairness and excellence in the workplace can also ameliorate conflicts that arise from diverse life experiences and values (Cox 1994; Ely & Thomas 2001).

Building Empathy Through Understanding

A key step is helping individuals understand different viewpoints through empathic listening rather than assumptions. Research on conflict resolution shows active listening decreases resentment while validating others' experiences builds trust and cooperation (Rothschild 2000; Gordon 2005). Leaders must model open and respectful inquiry to diffuse defensiveness and find common ground. For example, discussing real harms of discrimination alongside fears of reverse bias acknowledges the complexity of issues from multiple perspectives (Plaut 2010). Promoting respectful debate and "disagreement without disparagement" also affirms individuals while surfacing solutions (Lapidot et al. 2007).

Creating Inclusive Structures and Processes

To move beyond grievances, leaders must establish fair and inclusive structures that address systemic biases while preserving civil discourse. Studies show diversity training succeeds best when it fosters perspective-taking rather than accusation, and provides constructive skills like conflict mediation (Kalev et al. 2006). inclusive complaint and feedback systems that ensure respect, confidentiality and equitabletreatmentfor all concerns also promote healing and reform (Bezrukova et al. 2016). Regular climate surveys identifying issues privately yet transparently in reporting can furtherengage all groups constructively (Hicks-Clarke & Iles 2000). With care and diligence, leaders can build the conditions for individuals across differences to cooperate on shared goals of justice, equity and organizational excellence.

Applying the Framework: Three Key Steps for Leaders

The following section applies the above research-grounded framework through three actionable steps leaders can take to guide their organizations productively past divisions toward inclusion:

Step 1: Establish Shared Values and Purpose

To overcome polarization, leaders must clearly and consistently articulate their organization's shared commitment to values like integrity, fairness and excellence that unite all stakeholders regardless of attributes or views. These values form the common ground on which understanding and cooperation can be built. Leaders can:

  • Publicly recommit the organization to its core values through written statements, town halls, and promotional materials seen by all employees.

  • Incorporate values into performance reviews, codes of conduct and complaint processes to ensure fair and respectful treatment of all.

  • Create cross-functional task forces focused on delivering the organization's mission and goals rather than social or political issues. Bringing people together on shared purposes mitigates conflicts over differences.

Step 2: Foster Understanding Through Respectful Discussion

While grievances will arise, leaders should facilitate open yet constructive dialogue. Accusations and assumptions should be avoided in favor of:

  • Hosting respectful "listening sessions" where people share perspectives and concerns in a safe, confidential space.

  • Providing mediation and conflict resolution training to develop empathy and cooperation skills across ideologies.

  • Setting clear behavioral norms emphasizing civil debate of ideas rather than attacks on others' character or attributes.

Step 3: Establish Inclusive Processes and Ongoing Assessment

Leaders must implement structures that continuously assess issues, get ongoing stakeholder input, and drive fair outcomes. This includes:

  • Anonymous climate surveys addressing workplace treatment, policies and leaders' handling of issues.

  • Multi-stakeholder committees overseeing complaint systems, diversity initiatives and their transparent reporting of progress.

  • Mediation and accountability practices ensuring respect and remedies for all, preventing repercussions or grievances from festering.

Combining these steps builds the conditions for individuals to resolve differences constructively and focus on their shared goal of organizational excellence. Not through silencing dissent but cultivating understanding.


When practiced authentically and continuously, this framework can help organizations overcome polarization and “culture wars” to realize the benefits of diversity. By emphasizing commonly held values and purposes, active listening across viewpoints, and establishing inclusive structures, leaders can guide cooperation on shared goals rather than conflict over differences. Constructive DEIB efforts require acknowledgement of real harms and concerns alongside fears or dissenting perspectives. With care, diligence and role modeling of civil discourse, diversity can be transformed from a source of division to one of strength, creativity and justice for all. By focusing on common ground over divisions and understanding over accusation, organizations can set an example of bringing people together across backgrounds to reach their full potential.


  • Bezrukova, K., Spell, C. S., Perry, J. L., & Jehn, K. A. (2016). A meta-analytical integration of over 40 years of research on diversity training evaluation. Psychological Bulletin, 142(11), 1227–1274.

  • Cox, T. H. (1994). Cultural diversity in organizations: Theory, research and practice. Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

  • Druckman, J. N., & Nelson, K. R. (2003). Framing and deliberation: How citizens' conversations limit elite influence. American Journal of Political Science, 47(4), 729-745.

  • Ely, R. J., & Thomas, D. A. (2001). Cultural diversity at work: The effects of diversity perspectives on work group processes and outcomes. Administrative Science Quarterly, 46(2), 229-273.

  • Gordon, T. (2005). Group-centered leadership: A way of releasing the creative power of groups. Da Capo Press.

  • Huddy, L. (2001). From social to political identity: A critical examination of social identity theory. Political Psychology, 22(1), 127-156.

  • Kalev, A., Dobbin, F., & Kelly, E. (2006). Best practices or best guesses? Assessing the efficacy of corporate affirmative action and diversity policies. American Sociological Review, 71(4), 589-617.

  • Lapidot-Lefler, N., & Barak, A. (2012). Effects of anonymity, invisibility, and lack of eye-contact on toxic online disinhibition. Computers in Human Behavior, 28(2), 434-443.

  • Lukianoff, G., & Haidt, J. (2018). The coddling of the American mind: How good intentions and bad ideas are setting up a generation for failure. Penguin.

  • Maoz, I., Ward, A., Katz, M., & Ross, L. (2002). Reactive devaluation of an “Israeli” vs. “Palestinian” peace proposal. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 46(4), 515-546.

  • Pew Research Center. (2015, June). Chapter 6: Partisan polarization surges in Bush, Obama years.

  • Plaut, V. C., Garnett, F. G., Buffardi, L. E., & Sanchez-Burks, J. (2011). “What about me?” Perceptions of exclusion and whites' reactions to multiculturalism. Journal of personality and social psychology, 101(2), 337–353.

  • Rothschild, B. (2000). The body remembers casebook: Unifying methods and models in the treatment of trauma and PTSD. W. W. Norton & Company.

  • Sullivan, D., & Landau, M. J. (Eds.). (2017). Managing controversies in promoting values and morals in organizations. Springer.


Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.



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