Real talk at work: How Amway created a better office for more people

Being real at the office? Some workplaces would frown at the idea, but Amway embraces it (and is all the better for it).

Claire Groen: As part of our drive towards developing an inclusive environment, we wanted to address both people's uniqueness and their sense of belonging. In order to do that we needed to be able to have conversations about somebody's uniqueness in order to achieve a sense of belongingness in the workplace. And therefore we felt like we needed to be able to put on the table conversations that were difficult topics – that people were wanting to shy away from maybe, because they were worried about asking questions, or they were worried about bringing up the topic. But yet those topics were critical to really understanding each other. And we launched a series called RealTalk series in order to be able to put those more difficult things on the table.
It happened a little bit as a coincidence that there were a lot of current events that occurred as we were going through that RealTalk series. Things like natural disasters, a lot of the immigration changes that were happening in the U.S. And then also the events that happened in Charlottesville. And those became great platforms for us to be able to have some of these difficult conversations to understand how people view things differently. So people may see an event like Charlottesville and they feel badly about it. They're unhappy about it but they sort of go on about their way. Whereas other people in the workplace feel very personally affected by it. They may be angry. They may be very sad about it. And they need to be able to come into a workplace where people could recognize those emotions and show that they cared that they felt that way.
We wanted to have our participants get comfortable with the idea of being uncomfortable. And that was the guidance that we gave to the leaders for those sessions to make sure that we were raising up issues where people understood that it wasn't going to necessarily be an easy conversation. And people had to come prepared to be vulnerable and open to some level of discomfort.
One of the things we asked for from the participants was to assume a positive intent. And a positive intent is simply necessary if you want to have these difficult conversations and have them be productive. It's so easy to go in and actually become defensive. That's usually the issue that creates the obstacles in having a productive conversation. It's not so much that people go negative but it's that they become defensive. And so we really asked people to come in and say let's assume a positive intent on the part of the other person so that we didn't go to an area of defensiveness immediately.
As we engaged in this series we wanted people to understand that it was a dialogue and not a debate. Dialogue is open-ended. It's a conversation about how I might experience something and understanding how you might experience that exact same thing but in a different way. In a debate you're looking to win. You're looking to convince and have the final say in something. And that's not the purpose of these conversations. The purpose is to make sure that we can understand each other better and become better advocates for each other.
All the experiences that we had going through the RealTalk series really summed up to leading people to commit to having ongoing conversations about things that matter even apart from the series. And it really led to a practical takeaway for people to just simply say "I'm going to sit down with somebody. I'm going to ask their perspective on an event that happened. If something happened over the weekend in the news I'm going to commit to asking what was their experience around that?" How did they feel about it and what impact might it have had on them? And also sharing how I might feel about it without judgment as to what it should have been but just understanding each of our own perspectives on that event.
So it was a very good experience for us. It was a very significant impact for leaders in the organization but also people who were participating in the series as individual contributors to know that leaders cared and wanted to engage in those conversations.

Most people approach talking about difficult subjects as if they were at a debate. That is, arriving at the table (metaphorically speaking) with preconceived notions and ideas. But Amway's VP of Global Litigation and Corporate Law, Claire Groen, knew there had to be a better way. She and the leaders at Amway devised what they call RealTalk, which brings people together to hold conversations on current topics. And when the topics happened to turn into hot-button issues like immigration, the racism at Charlottesville, and so forth, these talks became an incredible conduit to a more inclusive office. People were heard, and in turn listened more to ideas outside of their comfort zone. This resulted in a better and more inclusive culture at Amway. Amway believes that ​diversity and inclusion ​are ​essential ​to the ​growth ​and ​prosperity ​of ​today’s ​companies. When woven ​into ​every ​aspect ​of ​the talent ​life ​cycle, companies committed to diversity and inclusion are ​the ​best ​equipped ​to ​innovate, ​improve ​brand image ​and ​drive ​performance.

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Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.