What happened to honor among gentlemen and women? At some point in the recent past, dissenting points of view became mutually exclusive. Can we disagree and support each other? Even better, can we disagree and commit to each other? Best, can we disagree and love one another? Once upon a time, I watched politicians vigorously disagree on the chamber floor and then head to a favorite lunch spot together. Have we allowed the invisible army known as the “cancel culture” to create hate and animosity among otherwise normal humans? Have we convicted people in the court of popular opinion for having any dissenting point of view? How do we opine for diversity in one breath then convict our brother for seeing the same reality through a different lens?
We can blame the politicians for this reality. They are indeed guilty of sowing hatred to score sound-bites and clickbait for ratings. They (politicians) do this in public and are rewarded greatly for “fear-mongering” by a culpable press. Are we just as guilty in the privacy of our homes, campuses, businesses, and other echo chambers? Rule number one in business…NO POLITICS. Let’s discuss why that is a mistake!
I believe there is a large segment of the population who live in fear of their own convictions. When polled, they are afraid to speak honestly about what they believe at their core. They are afraid to be open about the values they hold dear. When asked, they deflect to a neutral answer that avoids their truth. Does this perpetuate passive-aggressive tendencies that already exist in the name of social calm?
In the business world, I encourage leaders to spar and rumble in the name of learning and creativity. The path forward is often in the middle of otherwise personal positions. I coach executives to have team members assume the role of devil’s advocate (during meetings) in order to optimize solutions and avoid groupthink. I teach leaders to withstand a barrage of clarifying questions in order to understand difficult issues. I have leaders just listen (no speaking) to their peers discuss what they hear from that individual leader. The outcome is enlightenment that cannot be accessed by our own way of thinking.
When we “dig in” to a position, considerate dialogue stops. When we espouse opinions rather than asking questions, dialogue stops. A monologue about personal values or beliefs remains just that, a monologue. True understanding comes from consideration, rather than a position. Convincing yourself does not win an argument. The magic happens during consideration. When we open our minds to consideration, we are learning. When we stop considering, we are stuck. We lose mental momentum and that is the problem.
Momentum creates learning and vice versa. There is an axiom (self-evident truth) in here somewhere. The truth is hidden inside the velocity of our thoughts. Without momentum (no matter how incremental); we stop learning. Asking questions creates mental velocity. Making statements stops this mental velocity.
A more beautiful question is the answer. Warren Berger, journalist and innovation expert, shares the most powerful forces for igniting change is a simple, underappreciated tool—the question. He says [Questioning—deeply, imaginatively, "beautifully"—help us identify and boost opportunities, create powerful ideas, and solve problems.] I agree.
Today, many people feel muzzled at work. Opinions about anything controversial are no longer accepted. Conversations are mitigated to the point that everyone assumes most people think and believe the same way or the opposite way. This is dangerous. We need sincere dialogue with each other to understand other points of view. People with power (media and politicians) use trigger words to stop the conversation that leads to mutual understanding. Trigger words are labels that halt organic dialogue. Once you label an idea; or worse, an individual, there is no place to go mutually. You are stuck and divided.
Media (including social media) has the power to sit in judgment while the individual is powerless. They are the proverbial “powers that be” who judge others through their own narrow lens of reality. This is evident because journalism has been replaced with editorial opinion through headlines. If most people only read digital headlines, they form an opinion based on the bias from the headline writer. Ironically, this negates the need for the reader to actually read the information. They get the message from the headline. In fact, a neutral headline might actually encourage more readers.
It is time for organizational managers to lead teams through this conundrum. Encourage healthy dissension about difficult topics like race, religion, and politics at work. I know this sounds scary, but stay with me. It may seem counterintuitive; however healthy teams are fearless when it comes to difficult conversations. Your valuable people do not feel safe at work during this heated political environment. They feel like they must “walk on eggshells” and are in constant fear people will learn what they really think and believe. This mitigation of personal values is not limited to politics.
If people are afraid to be genuine about one topic, it will infect other conversations for the team. Fear is the ultimate paralytic. It stops everything dead in the tracks. Fear and safety are binary. You feel one way or the other. Effective leaders guide difficult conversations through the minefields by addressing trigger words head-on. For example, if someone says “we must be responsible during this pandemic”. An effective leader might say, “Be careful. Responsible may be a trigger word. It implies others who feel differently are irresponsible.” The solution is to look for observable facts that always exist behind judgments.
Higher-level communication skills are the solution to challenges facing many organizations today. Sadly, managers are unarmed and not equipped to handle difficult conversations, so they are avoided. Modeling this behavior reinforces avoidance as the best path for survival on the team. Conversely, when a manager models difficult conversations; people feel safe, to be honest about other issues facing the team.
Fear is an indicator of the conversations you need to have with your team. If you are afraid to discuss politics or race with your team, you need to have a conversation. We feed fear with time. The more you wait, the larger fear grows in your mind. People are tired of being muzzled. It is stressful and highly-corrosive for team unity and productivity. As the election approaches, this will grow. When the election is over, it will be even more essential for managers to lead a dialogue with the team. If you are not sure how to have these conversations, get some help. Do not sit this obligation out!