As a leader, you impact the people around you – whether you like it or not. Your reach comes with privileges and with responsibilities. In our country today, I suggest that it is the responsibility of every organizational leader to put civil discourse at the top of their priority list. As recent polls show 60-70% of Americans feel distressed about the state of their country, it is time for all of us who are leaders to step up and do our part to reverse the negativity and replace it with a spirit of respect and partnership.
Leading with a positive attitude is infectious, and we need that badly in this climate. Turn on the TV or read the newspaper and you will find most of the commentary to be just plain negative. So much of the content focuses on tearing up the other side, and seldom gets into real issues or offers real solutions. If you find yourself in this type of conversation, I encourage you, as a leader, to step in and make the effort to steer the conversation in a constructive direction. There is nothing wrong with civil discourse about important issues; but there is lot wrong with prejudice and name-calling.
When you get involved, try asking probing questions instead of advancing your opinion on the topic. The questioning process brings facts to the surface, and almost inevitably results in a deeper understanding of the many opinions at the table. Plus, the back-and-forth will help you better understand your own position. By leading a civil discussion, you set an example for others; and in your workplace setting, you set the tone for a culture of respect.
My advice to business leaders is to refrain from espousing your own position on controversial issues because I believe there is no upside. If you take a position on a controversial topic, you will likely turn off some employees, some customers, and maybe even your peers. The only exception to avoiding a public stance would be related to issues that directly impact your business. But it is inevitable that hot-button issues will pop up as a topic of conversation inside your organization, even if just over coffee in the breakroom. You might be surprised to find how often the opportunity to promote diplomatic conversation among your peers will simply fall into your lap.
If this sounds easier said than done, I understand. When I hear pundits on TV talking about issues on which I have a different viewpoint, I feel like poking them in the nose. And sure, that kind of action might make me feel good – but it would accomplish nothing. This leads me to my next suggestion for any organizational leader; don’t pull your opinions straight from media headlines. Stories are often written to inspire a reaction – to scare you, or make you mad. Don’t be fooled by sensational headlines or social media posts. Instead, read articles from multiple sources, investigate the questions that arise as you read, and always listen. Be open to hearing the good, bad, and ugly about everything and don’t shut out anything. To truly show respect to others, you must be willing to understand their side of the argument.
Let’s face it — there are two sides to just about every big issue, and we should try to get comfortable with that. Make the best of potentially difficult situations by taking the initiative to lead these discussions with civility – at work, at home, or in your social life. If you’d like an additional challenge, another positive leadership step would be to encourage your employees, family, and friends to get out and vote. The turnout in primary elections is usually below 30% and in the general election, 60-65%. Leaders can choose to make democratic participation a central component of their company culture – this is a powerful way to impact your community and your country.
It is time for all of us who are leaders to take that title seriously. Remember that you can use your position to promote constructive conversation and demonstrate respect toward others, especially to those who do not share your personal stances. I know you are only one person; but if all of us move in the direction of civility, we will win. Business leaders can make a difference!
published Nashville Business Journal