by Gael O’Brien

It’s no secret: Americans disagree sharply about politics. According to a Pew Research Center analysis, Republicans and Democrats on average “… are farther apart ideologically today than at any time in the past 50 years.”

That presents a particular problem for corporate leaders. A 2022 study by the non-partisan National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) found that executive teams in U.S.-based companies have become increasingly partisan “leading to a political polarization of corporate America.” Partisanship was defined as “the degree to which the political views within a team are dominated by a single political party.” Study findings include that the trend “toward more homogeneity is twice as large among executives as it is in the overall population.”

Political polarization erodes work culture. It’s been intensifying in America and the workplace, making increased challenges inevitable. The problem isn’t just an increase in incivility in how co-workers handle political differences. or reactions to what their company should or shouldn’t support. It also reflects top leaders whose discomfort with diverse viewpoints may hamper their effectiveness managing polarization. However, cultivating more homogeneity sends the message “Only some belong” so the chance of working toward common ground evaporates in that mindset.

Common ground is easier to find when feeling connected to a common purpose. President Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet of rivals from different political parties eventually came together over shared values, how Lincoln led, and agreement on a big purpose. Companies need to consider what common purpose in the coming year can support uniting their teams. 

“The Polarization of Corporate America”

 The NBER study, titled “The Political Polarization of Corporate America,” used voter registration records for top executives of S&P 1500 companies between 2008 to 2020 to understand party affiliations. Some highlights during the scope of the study include:

  • The share of Republican top executives increased from 63% to 68%;
  • The average partisanship of executive teams increased 7.7 percentage points
  • 61% of the partisanship increase can be attributed to “an increased tendency of executives to match with other executives who share their political views;” and
  • Executives in a political minority were 24% more likely to leave a company than the rest of the team.

The data raises concerns for shareholders about increasing partisan work environments and the potential negative consequences for firm value. The authors suggest that top executives in the political minority who leave could offer significant perspectives that would help the company. They also raise the question “of whether policymakers should be concerned about political discrimination in the workplace.” Both issues need additional research.

How we talk and work with each other requires increasing our capacity for receptiveness (also called open-mindedness). It’s a skill that has become critically important in creating a connection between teams.

Receptiveness helps to de-escalate

Minimizing tension in a polarized workplace isn’t easy. A recent Harvard Business Review article explores ways to foster respectful debate, promote trust, and reduce polarization. Among its suggestions:

  • Understanding conflict’s three myths where we self-alienate in each:
  • Picking our words carefully to create an environment fostering receptive speech;
  • Fostering a culture that encourages tolerance using receptive mindset and language; and
  • Receptiveness, which we’ll look at in more detail below.

Just as we can be overconfident about how self-aware we are, we’re also likely to be overconfident about how receptive we are. The article includes a link to a 23-question quiz to learn your own level of receptiveness.

Developing a receptive mindset is backed by carefully considering what are “the reasons why others hold the views they do” and viewing it through their eyes, according to the authors:

Receptiveness doesn’t require us to change our minds or tolerate views we find irrational or offensive. We can listen to arguments attentively, come to fully understanding them, and still believe that we are right. The ultimate goal is greater insight, mutual respect, and a willingness to collaborate.

Increasing receptiveness is supported by active listening, asking questions, repeating what was said for greater understanding, and focusing on learning, not judging. These are skills that likely few of us have taken time to develop fully. However, it’s an effective way to build trust and expand in small steps the ability to work effectively together.

The article offers a coaching tip. If someone offers an opinion you don’t agree with, thank him/her “and acknowledge aspects of the view you appreciated: only then make your own argument.” Rather than poking holes in the other person’s viewpoint, the article indicates this approach “makes people feel more heard and valued. They perceive more common ground….”

Additional strategy ideas to manage political polarization

“The Polarization of Corporate America” comes with hazards that impact companies’ cultures, productivity, and talented people. The more we take advantage of ideas that haven’t been part of daily routine, the more we learn what’s possible working with each other. The following additional ideas may inspire other possibilities:

  • “Set the Stage” by convening employees to discuss political conflict in the workplace; review what’s been put in place and “remind employees they’re all on the same team if they disagree and that vilifying colleagues for their opinions is unacceptable.”
  • “Highlight the value of bipartisan cooperation” For example, “65 percent of partisans have friends who support an opposing party” and managers can reinforce this by sharing stories of friendships.
  • “Create common ground” with different groups within the company getting to know each other around apolitical interests like corporate volunteering programs. In addition, the company can “promote fast-paced discourse” in company communications with independently verified facts to avoid the spread of misinformation.
  • “Build an environment of cooperation not competition” as it helps reduce false polarization bias (described as “people often overestimate the level of disagreement between themselves and members of opposing political groups, the prevalence of extreme beliefs among those groups, and the extent to which those people view them negatively.”) The authors’ research indicates that “building a cooperative culture can help to reduce the false polarization bias.” Consider systems in place that promote competition and instead promote cooperation among employees.
  • Ask regularly the question, “How can we support employees and encourage them to handle difference, respect one another, listen and learn?”
    • That question also works well personally: How can I support myself and other top executives and managers and encourage us to handle difference, respect one another, listen, and learn?

Gael O’Brien is a catalyst in leaders leading with purpose and impact through clarity, presence and connection. She is an executive coach, culture coach, speech coach and presenter. She publishes The Week in Ethics and is also a Business Ethics Magazine columnist, on the Advisory Board of the Hoffman Center for Business Ethics at Bentley University, and a Senior Fellow at The Institute for Social Innovation at Babson College.

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