Rooting Out an 'Us vs. Them' Mentality: An Interview with Laura Kriska

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Earlier this year, I-Connect007 columnist Dan Beaulieu submitted a book review on: "The Business of WE: The Proven Three-Step Process for Closing the Gap Between Us and Them in Your Workplace." As a follow up to that review, here is Dan's interview with the book's author, Laura Kriska.

First, I want to state that I am an unabashed fan of this book. For me, this timely book is the most important book of 2021. And that’s not hyperbole; I truly mean it.

This is because, now more than ever, we need ways of re-uniting with each other; we need to find ways to celebrate our differences rather than let them tear us apart. This book shows us how to do just that. The Business of We was written for then workplace, but its message impacts our personal lives as well.

Laura is a leading cross-cultural consultant who focuses on communication and teamwork with culturally diverse organizations. She has developed a global framework for understanding cultural differences and process application for any multicultural group.

Since beginning her career with Honda in Tokyo, Laura has dedicated her life’s work to simply helping people of different backgrounds get along. For those reasons, I reached out and asked her for this interview. Her comments are applicable to our industry and personal lives. I believe you enjoy this as much as I did.

Dan Beaulieu: Laura, so good to talk to you. Thanks for doing this.

Laura Kriska: Thank you, Dan. It is satisfying for any writer to get a positive review from a person who really knows their business which you clearly do after so many years. I feel like you really got the message of my book, so thank you.

Beaulieu: Let’s start with you. Tell us the Laura story.

Laura_Kriska.jpgKriska: My story starts in Tokyo, Japan, where I was born to missionary parents. We all returned to the United States—Columbus, Ohio to be exact—when I was about two years old. I led an average, middle-class, Midwestern life in a small community where I walked to church, and to the same school my mother and grandmother had attended. I went to school with the same group of kids from kindergarten through high school. At the time I was unaware of the homogeneity of my community, but it’s only now, looking back, that I see that I lived a very “white” life. This has come into play as I grew into awareness of how people, especially white people, are increasingly vocal about support for Black Lives Matter and other important diversity movements and initiatives, yet continue to live segregated white lives.

My parents loved living in Japan and I grew up with a great affection for Japan. We had Japanese friends and I felt special to have been born in Tokyo. When I was 16, our family took our one and only international trip, spending one month in Japan. This was exciting; I spoke a little Japanese and felt the thrill of using words in a different language to communicate with people who were very different from me. That trip was game-changing. I decided that I want to go to a college that had an exchange program, and ultimately spent my junior year at Waseda University in Japan, which was a great experience.

That led to an internship at Honda in Ohio while still in college, and then a job offer when I graduated. A week after graduating from Denison University I was on the assembly line in Marysville, Ohio wearing steel-toed boots and plastic eye protectors as part of my training. Then I went to Tokyo where I was the first American women to work in the Honda Motor Company headquarters. This experience is the basis of my first book, The Accidental Office Lady, which was published more than 20 years ago.

Beaulieu: And when you are not writing books like this, what do you do? Talk about your consulting work please.

After publishing the first book, I started my work as a cross-cultural consultant helping people navigate the inevitable and predictable culture gaps that result when people from different backgrounds work together. In the beginning, I worked to bridge the Japanese vs. United States divide but then my work expanded. I saw how the tools I had developed to help Japanese and Americans build trust could work with any “us vs. them” culture gap. 

I also recognized how “culture” refers to a lot more than a person’s nationality. A cultural identity is complex and changing. The different ways people grow up lead to forming different ideas of what is “normal” and how these ideas seem fixed and right to people who follow these norms. Usually, it’s not until a person is faced with a different idea of “normal” behavior that they even gain awareness that there are different ways of doing things. If a person grows up in a diverse environment, this understanding is easier to grasp.

Beaulieu: Why this book and why now?

Kriska: The global marketplace is more diverse and interconnected than ever before which is why the tools I offer are urgently needed. Fifty, or even 25 years ago, having cultural awareness and skills to bridge gaps were the type of things that diplomats paid attention to. In the 21st century, it is critical to understand that cultural data is important in all situations. When people think of culture, they often think of international differences, which is a good example of culture, but it’s not the only factor. In fact, a person’s cultural identity is made up of a wide range of factors including their age, gender, gender-identity, race, ethnicity, religion, and many other factors. It is necessary to pay attention to these aspects of another person in order to understand that person and build trust with that person. Too often there has been a narrative that suggests that proximity to those who are different is enough.  While I agree that proximity to those who are different from yourself is better than no proximity, it is not enough to promote the kind of change we need these days.

Beaulieu: Who did you write this book for? Who will most benefit from reading it?

Kriska: I wrote the book for anyone who wants to bridge an “us vs. them” gap that is relevant to their lives, but my real target audience is the “home team.” The home team is the group with access to power and money in any organization. It’s the group that sits in the board room, the ones making decisions. In many organizations, the home team is still very homogeneous. A homogeneous group is not well prepared to manage the diverse experience of a diverse customer base and a diverse employee base. I want people who identify with the home team in their organizations to think deeply about how to utilize the tools in the book to look inward and reflect on their homogeneous lives.

Beaulieu: Laura, who exactly is “we” and who is “them?”

Kriska: There are many researchers who have studied in-group vs. out-group behavior and psychology which fosters an analytical understanding of what so many people just inherently understand. It’s the simple answer to this question, “Do I belong?” Generally speaking, humans like to belong in one way or another and when we feel like we don’t belong we feel left out, we feel like a “them.” Helping people feel connected to others in the workplace and beyond is an important part of being a strong leader.

While I like reading academic research, I also turn to Barack Obama’s inaugural poet Richard Blanco to describe the concept of “we.” He wrote a wonderful book called How to Love A Country. In it, he writes about the idea of “us” and “them” and how we as a country have struggled with the notion of who belongs. He writes, “Overall, we’ve managed to move toward a more inclusive understanding of ourselves and acceptance of each other. Historically, though, we have wavered and are currently at a crossroads: Are we going to advance toward a broader definition of ‘we’ or will we retreat to a narrower one?” “We” are people who feel included in any particular situation and “them” are the ones who are outside the circle. 

Beaulieu: You have several great tools in your book, which makes it proactive, and which I really admire. Please talk about some of those, starting with how you recognize the warning signs in your own organization.

Kriska: Most leaders I know prefer to know about problems early on when the problems tend to be smaller and more manageable. In order to recognize potential “us and them” gaps in an organization, leaders must pay attention to how employees interact, especially to employees who may not identify with the home team. One of the most important tools in the book is the 10-question “Us vs. Them” self-assessment. This is a simple measuring tool that you can take at any time to quickly measure your level of integration with a target cultural group.

Beaulieu: Now, please discuss how to help discover existing common, shared factors in diverse groups.

Kriska: Providing engaging opportunities for people to increase their face-to-face encounters (like any social function or teambuilding encounter) is useful but more than just gathering, it’s important to nudge people to engage with those they don’t know well. I have found that most professionals are capable and happy to engage with people in the same organization that they don’t yet know well.

Beaulieu: One of the stories in the book that I found very relevant was the story of CrossFit’s CEO making an inappropriate comment about Black Lives Matter. Can you expand on that story and use it as an example of how to best handle damage control when something like this does happen?

Kriska: The story of CrossFit shows how critical it is for people on the home team to pay attention to issues that may not be part of their lived experience. The Black Lives Matter movement has brought much needed awareness and urgency to a long overdue problem of inequity and injustice in America toward people of color and to African American people specifically. The CEO of CrossFit, like too many others, failed to grasp the importance of this issue. When a mistake is made, it is important to take responsibility and then take action to repair the damage that has been caused. Rather than damage control, I would suggest that addressing the core issue is important by taking action to educate yourself and ensure that those mistakes don’t happen again because of deeper understanding rather than a superficial wish to avoid public problems.

Beaulieu: So, what’s next for you? Do you have another book you’re working on?

Kriska: I would very much like to write a companion book to The Business of WE that addresses experiences outside the business world. The tools I offer in this book can be applied to any “us vs. them” situation.

Beaulieu: Do you have any last comments you would like to make?

Kriska: I hope that readers, especially those who identify with the home team in their organizations, will reflect on themselves and honestly evaluate their own choices in order to see where they may have room to do more or do things differently. It is my life’s work to inspire a WE-building revolution where people take action to narrow any “us vs. them” gaps in their lives. I genuinely believe that together we can create a safer, more welcoming and productive world if we start taking action now.

Beaulieu: Laura it has been a real pleasure. Thanks for doing this.

To read Dan’s review of this book, click here.

Dan Beaulieu is president of D.B. Management Group.


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