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How business leaders can reduce polarization

October 10, 2021
Borderless Leadership

Rising political polarization can have serious ramifications for businesses. Companies that speak out on controversial issues can face decreased customer loyalty from those with opposing beliefs, increased internal conflict between employees, or reduced sales from boycotts. Furthermore, taking a public stance can often exacerbate social tensions. For example, after the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida, Delta Air Lines was reported to have eliminated an NRA member discount. Despite affecting very few people, the move further heightened tensions around gun control and prompted state lawmakers to threaten the airline’s fuel tax exemptions.

Even so, inaction is not necessarily the better strategy. Polarization can also affect businesses that do not speak out, through decreased customer loyalty, market unpredictability caused by public misinformation, or foregone opportunities due to fear of a backlash. Silence can also be perceived as tacit support for one side of an issue. For example, Uber faced a widespread boycott for its reported silence regarding a U.S. travel ban on majority-Muslim countries in 2017, which some viewed as an endorsement of the policy.

These risks are compounded by increasing expectations that companies should practice “corporate statesmanship” by playing a more visible public role in social and political issues. Tellingly, CEOs are split almost evenly on whether to take a public stand on controversial social issues or not.

If both advocating for a position and remaining silent can backfire, what actions can CEOs take to effectively reduce division — and protect their businesses in increasingly polarized times?

Bridging the Divide
Instead of focusing on the false binary of simply taking a public stance or staying silent, CEOs would be better off understanding and addressing the context of rising polarization and doing so in a strategic manner.

First, get your own house in order.
Before engaging in public debates, leaders should ensure that they have addressed polarization within their own organizations. Not only will this help avoid accusations of hypocrisy, but it will also create a stronger foundation for external influence.
The workplace is one of the few remaining social spaces for repeated intergroup interaction and cooperation. We may bowl alone, but we still work together. Each day, we engage with colleagues who don’t necessarily share our social and political views in order to complete a common mission, creating positive connections across lines of difference that may not exist in broader society. This is a valuable and major source of social cohesion in its own right.

Furthermore, a divisive environment can negatively affect employee sentiment — and performance. A 2016 survey found that 24% of workers said a divisive political environment led to negative work outcomes, including poor work quality and lower productivity. To resolve and avoid these negative effects, leaders can make efforts to bridge gaps and foster cooperation between employee groups in the workplace. READ MORE

by Martin Reeves, Leesa Quinlan, Mathieu Lefèvre, and Georg Kell

Source: hbr.org

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