The Business of Bridge-Building: Reflections on the Value of Connecting with Others

A few months ago, I had the opportunity to participate in the 40th annual Atlantik-Brücke Young Leaders Conference. Founded in 1952, the Atlantik-Brücke (or, “Atlantic Bridge” in English), a non-profit and non-partisan organization, has a primary goal of deepening cooperation among Germany, Europe and America on all levels. The Young Leaders Conference I attended is just one facet of their many activities, which also include conferences, seminars, workshops and other events for organization members. The Conference offers leaders under the age of 35 the opportunity to engage in an intensive and interdisciplinary exchange on current transatlantic issues such as digitalization and its implications, the rise of nationalism, immigration and integration, national security, the role of media, and education. More importantly, however, the Conference encourages the building of both professional and personal bridges across the Atlantic.

My experience that summer week in and around Berlin, with a group of 25 Americans and 25 Germans representing the areas of government, diplomacy, academia, security, military, business, art, and sports, gave me much to think about. It may be no surprise that we did not reach any grand conclusions on any complex transatlantic topics, but we certainly had many intriguing and thought-provoking discussions. The diversity of the individuals in the group meant that each of us came away from the Conference with new perspectives and ideas, and new friendships that have already provided invaluable insight into ongoing discussions on current events.

These conversations have reconfirmed my belief that communication and cooperation efforts like these are critical for success — whether for a nation, a company, or an individual. Although I had the incredible opportunity to participate in the Young Leaders Conference, it’s certainly not necessary to travel to a different country to build new bridges. Following are a few of my reflections on how to consciously build bridges of communication and cooperation every day.

Think globally
In my company, Bosch, which is headquartered in Germany but has a large presence in the U.S. and around the world, thinking globally comes naturally. Every day, like many other internationally competitive companies, we think about the implications of our decisions on a global scale, as well as in our own local communities. In today’s world, it’s imperative to ensure sound decision-making on all of these levels.

However, wouldn’t it be great if identifying stakeholders and analyzing various potential outcomes of our decisions were not only workplace exercises, but happened at the individual level as well? How much better informed would our citizens be? How much stronger would companies be if new employees on-boarded with a global mindset? How much safer could the world be if people with differing ideas and perspectives communicated more effectively with their neighbors, whether local or international? This topic of increased dialogue and understanding was the underlying theme of the Young Leaders Conference, and it was inspiring to be around so many other attendees who are also passionate advocates of stronger global relations.

Pursue diversity of thought
There are many well-known studies that show that diversity in the workplace is generally linked to stronger company financial performance and more and better innovation. Beyond what is traditionally thought of as “diversity,” however – typically, gender and ethnicity –diversity of background and diversity of thought are just as important. It’s easy to get caught in the trap of surrounding ourselves with only those who are most like us, in our professional as well as personal lives, but this provides us with no new perspective.

It is also true that diverse teams are not always easy to be a part of, given their very nature. Individuals must work harder to communicate their ideas, since there is less common understanding. This friction was evident at the Young Leaders Conference as well, but I found that most attendees were willing to listen and speak their minds in equal proportion. Seeking out diversity may not always be simple, but it is only by consciously choosing diverse thought and opinion that we arrive at better decisions.

photo credit: Christopher Becker

Avoid “filter bubbles”, both online and offline
Eli Pariser gave a great TED talk in 2011 on the subject of “filter bubbles.” As he explains, filter bubbles are the consequences of web algorithms (on our social media, search engines, etc.) serving only what they calculate to be the “most relevant” content for each of us. To marketers, these algorithms are enticing because they give companies the opportunity to target products and services to very specific sets of people. However, individually, this means that we all see different content based on our particular worldview and online actions. The more that we engage with online content that agrees with our views — by clicking, liking, commenting and searching — the more the algorithm learns what to serve us, and we start to see less of anything outside of that preferred set of content. In the social media world, “unfriending” or disengaging with those who have dissimilar views only hastens the creation of a smaller filter bubble.

This may be why it sometimes seems that two groups of people are almost speaking different languages about the same topic — perhaps sometimes essentially they are, if they have been served two entirely different sets of information.

Although there may not be much one can do to completely avoid filter bubbles online, intentionally seeking out and engaging with thoughts and ideas different from our own can ensure that one’s algorithmic information stream will be at least partially comprised of new and different content that may be outside of a current worldview (and comfort zone).

While filter bubbles primarily refer to our online worlds, it’s an important concept to keep in mind in our offline interactions as well. Similar to the topic of diversity already discussed, surrounding ourselves with a variety of opinion and thought will ensure that we don’t create offline bubbles too.

Be kind
It sounds simple, but I think there is much to be said for civility in difficult discussions involving differences of opinion. When people feel heard and valued for their opinions, even from across an ideological divide, this can help to create a sense of goodwill that can be the basis for healthy discourse. A few good practices for engaging in respectful, constructive discussion are to ask open-ended questions, listen and ask follow-up questions, reflect what you heard, highlight areas where you agree, and finally share your own opinions by discussing personal experiences. Even the specific words we choose to use in conflict situations are important, and have the ability to drive others further away, or draw them closer.

In my experience, in an honest discussion with an earnest desire to learn, we often discover that we are not actually that different after all.

photo credit: Christopher Becker

Whether it’s among transatlantic leaders, co-workers, or next-door neighbors, taking the initiative to reach out and build a bridge of communication with a diverse mix of people is healthy (although sometimes difficult) and will lead to more understanding, better relationships, and ultimately better solutions.

Who will you build a bridge with?

Chelsea Render, International MBA, Class of 2009
Director of Marketing, North America
Bosch Building Technologies