Over the past few months, there’s been a number of thought leaders and CEOs who’ve found themselves embroiled in a heated controversy as a result of expressing their opinions on various sociopolitical issues. Regardless of the topic, in every situation there was a polarization of distinct groups around the issue, with each side clearly determined to vilify the other in the hopes of amassing the most public support, if not attention in the media and online social channels.
As a result of these controversies and debates, some pundits have been pushing the idea that CEOs and other leaders should refrain from sharing their opinions on any issue and instead, limit their focus or attention to matters that impact their organization’s bottom line.
But is this really the best way for leaders to guide their organizations which employ a growing multicultural, multi-ethnic makeup thanks to shifting demographics, not to mention communication technologies that allow for collaborative efforts to stretch past conventional geographical boundaries?
If organizational leaders are expected to keep silent on issues that matter to them, what is the example they present to those they lead who may have a divergent opinion to those they work with? How can organizations use the diversity of thought and opinion that so many recognize as being key to our ability to innovate and grow if our employees don’t feel comfortable expressing that diversity?
Of course, this doesn’t mean a free-for-all, anything-goes attitude. Rather, what it means is encouraging leaders to serve as the example for those they lead of how to embrace our differences while not losing sight of our commonality and shared purpose.
With this in mind, here are the three key pillars leaders will need to uphold if their organizations are to succeed and thrive in today’s global marketplace.
If an organization is tolerant of everything, it will stand for nothing.” – Patrick Lencioni
Perhaps one of the most surprising and consistent expectations that arises from these controversies is how an organization’s critics or opponents demand a change in the organization’s values or culture. Obviously, for those on the outside, such an effort is easy and desirable because it serves their own personal interests or needs.
And yet, consider what the impact would be on those you lead. Your employees look to you to not only define and communicate what the values and goals are for your organization, but to demonstrate what those values look like in action. This requires a sense of integrity to adhering to those values both in good times and bad, as well as having the courage to stand by them in the face of criticism and controversy.
This is an important reality that organizations and their leaders need to be mindful of as it is easy – especially in today’s world of social media where anyone can start a movement against your organization – to do whatever it takes to silence your biggest critics in the hopes that this unwanted attention goes away.
However, those you lead need to know and understand what it is you and your organization stand for and how their efforts contribute to that shared cause. Continually shifting your approach to avoid conflict or challenges from critics will only serve to lessen your employees’ commitment to your shared purpose.
Remember, your goal should not be to please everyone, or even silence your most vocal detractors. Rather, it’s to demonstrate how what you’re trying to accomplish creates meaning and value for those you serve – both within your organization and those for whom your products/services are meant for.
Unfortunately, there will always be those who challenge, question or even hate what your organization does or stands for. The key is to remember not to make them the focus for deciding what you do and why.
Every human being, of whatever origin, of whatever station, deserves respect. We must each respect others even as we respect ourselves.” – U Thant
Probably one of the most difficult things any of us can do is treat others we disagree with in a respectful fashion. Indeed, this is one of the common causalities in workplace and public forum conflicts as both sides focus more on vilifying their opponents in order to gain the most support for their particular position.
This is what we see playing out every time some contentious debate or topic appears on the public landscape. There’s very little open dialogue between the opposing sides as they’re too busy trying to prove how right they are and how wrong the other party is.
Of course, as any conflict management expert will attest, a resolution of any conflict occurs not through attempting to bend the will of your opponent. Rather, what’s needed is the willingness to respect that others will disagree or have opposing views to yours, and then focusing on how you can bridge that gap to find some balance that both sides can live with.
Remember, it’s easy to be respectful towards those who share your view. The real challenge is respecting those whose viewpoints challenge yours.
You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
– Harper Lee, “To Kill A Mockingbird”
As with respect, it’s not very difficult to empathize with those who share our viewpoints or values, or who are most similar to us. The real challenge in today’s global and increasingly diverse workforce is how do you empathize with those who express diametrically opposite opinions? Of the three aspects presented here, this one is the hardest to do because it places responsibility on each of us instead of on the organization as a whole.
Certainly, we can define our organization’s values to represent a sense of integrity and respect for others. But encouraging and helping those we lead to do such with a sense of empathy for others is critical to making our workplaces a welcoming environment where everyone can contribute and thrive.
Of course, the problem many of us have is that we confuse empathizing with others as being akin to agreeing with their position, which is why we so often see these lines in the sand being created as others join in the debate and side with those they agree with.
And yet, our ability to empathize with others is not dependent on whether we can agree with any or part of their opinion or viewpoint. Rather, it revolves more around our willingness to listen and understand how and why they see things from their vantage point. Indeed, our empathy for others comes not from focusing on our differences, but in appreciating our commonality despite those differences.
And while we might continue to not agree, we can still treat each other with compassion – as opposed to resentment – by focusing on those elements that we can relate to within one another. Elements like the drive to stand up for what you believe in, what matters to you, and your shared commitment to seeing your organization thrive and grow.
As our world continues to shrink thanks to developments both in technology and the greater ease with which we use it to reach out to connect with those around us and halfway around the world, our ability to be respectful of others while maintaining a sense of integrity for our own core values will become a key challenge both for today’s organizations and societies.
Unfortunately, in most cases when a clash erupts between divergent thoughts or beliefs, the goal is clearly more about homogenizing our collective thoughts under one banner instead of trying to learn and understand one another.
If we are to believe and support the notion that fostering diversity in the workplaces will allow our organizations to remain competitive and relevant, we must also recognize that this requires all of us to be more accepting of those who disagree with us; of embracing what we stand to gain from the cultural, religious, and ethnic diversities that can be found within our teams, organizations, and communities.
Leaders need to encourage and support a diversity of viewpoints and beliefs instead of focusing solely on the most vocal. Only then can organizations truly compete and thrive in a global economy, one where there’s no question that everyone not only has a place at the table, but has something worthwhile to contribute.