What Political Conflict Can Teach Us About Breaking Down Workplace Barriers

Photo of Sian Beilock presenting

When Chicago Booth’s Jane L. Risen set out to research interactions between Palestinian and Jewish Israeli teens, she hoped to uncover ways to facilitate friendships among people who might otherwise be enemies. But what she found may be just as applicable to building relationships in the modern workplace.

In a keynote address at the 2018 Booth Women Connect Conference, Risen shared her research on the Seeds of Peace program, which gathers students from various areas of conflict for a three-week summer camp in Maine. “You can use structure to facilitate meaningful connections,” she said.

Her findings are especially relevant as companies work toward creating more diverse and inclusive environments, as some of these same structures can also help organizations break down barriers at work and encourage employees to build relationships despite their differences. Here’s what she had to say:

Strive for social propinquity.

People who share similar demographic characteristics are naturally going to find connections with one another. But breaking down barriers requires something called social propinquity, or being in physical or psychological proximity to others, Risen said. Environments in the workplace could be structured in a way that takes advantage of this by connecting people across different groups, she said.

“Sharing meaningful activities can be a powerful driver” for a diverse set of connections, Risen told the audience. At work, tapping into those same concepts can result in fewer cliques, she added. For Palestinians and Jewish Israelis, the opportunities to experience propinquity by doing activities together and by engaging in dialogue that promotes “self-disclosure” was key to encouraging cross-group relationships, she adds. Anything from creating meaningful company offsites to taking a more purposeful look at office seating could be ways to practice this in the workplace.

Get comfortable with discomfort.

Breaking barriers and creating a diverse work environment can be likened to the pains of starting a new exercise routine, Risen pointed out. “It’s supposed to be a little bit uncomfortable,” she said. Remember that when engaging in dialogue, there’s not always a need to come to a consensus. “The goal is not to win; the goal is to learn from somebody else,” she added.

Lastly, try an exercise.

Are you working on a team in which some employees are not feeling understood? Risen recommends asking team members to repeat back what the other person is saying before presenting a new idea. This is similar to a strategy Risen saw being used with teens during the summer camp. The process of repeating back another person’s thought can make employees more mindful of how they work as part of a team. “It ensures people are being heard and understood,” Risen explained.


Booth Women Connect Conference is organized by the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. The 2018 event brought together more than 1,100 professionals for an extraordinary day of bold ideas, spirited discussion, practical insights, and impactful networking. Join us for the next annual conference on November 1, 2019.

—By Alina Dizik

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