Jul 11, 2023

Navigating polarisation and fostering healthy disagreement

In today's polarised society, leaders face the challenge of steering their organisations through an environment where distrust has become the default. Within the workplace, there’s increasing evidence of polarisation manifesting through creating a sense of "us versus them", of “in and out groups”, and opposing views leading to misunderstanding, conflict and decreased productivity.

Reality programmes like "The Apprentice" and "MasterChef" have influenced public perceptions of workplace dynamics and the treatment of individuals. Reality programs often showcase intense competition, harsh criticism, and even humiliation as part of their entertainment formula. This can reinforce the idea that treating others disrespectfully, dismissing them abruptly, or exerting autocratic power is acceptable or desirable in professional settings. As we all know, such behaviours do not align with healthy and productive workplace dynamics.

Healthy debate and independent thinking are vital within a working environment to encourage innovation and problem-solving, enhance critical thinking and decision-making, and create opportunities for continuous learning and personal growth. When individuals engage in thoughtful discussions, exposure to different perspectives and knowledge can broaden their understanding of the subject matter. Employees can expand their knowledge, sharpen their skills, and deepen their appreciation for the diversity of thought and difference through respectful challenges and intellectual exchanges.

In working with Nancy Kline’s work on polarisation and disconnection, I witnessed a deep and transformational dialogue on two very raw and contentious topics.  Going into this session with Kline’s London Collegiate, I felt deeply uncomfortable about the subject matter and the thinking ahead. Masterfully, her facilitation enabled four speakers to give their views and share their thinking uninterrupted. The audience listened with palpable respect.  Kline talked of ‘listening to understand, and that’s where the magic happens’ and how ‘listening to convince is very different’.  I listened, I understood, and I felt grateful for the opportunity to be present at this dialogue, to hear different thinking and understand why some of the speakers felt like they did and thought as they did with very polarised views to mine on Pro-Life and Brexit.  This transformational experience changed my views; I understood, I understood more. I connected and enriched my ‘independent thinking’ by finding common ground.

“We can disagree fiercely and not polarise if we can stay connected to each other”
Nancy Kline

The digitisation of our lives has undoubtedly led to dehumanisation, distraction, exacerbating divisions and providing a certain level of anonymity which can embolden individuals to be more aggressive or critical in their communication and feel less accountable. Furthermore, as organisations embrace hybrid working models, they may struggle to grapple with the complexities of meeting the needs of diverse demographics within their workforce.

As leaders, how can we respond to this dynamic? How are we teaching, training, and role-modelling the behaviours we want to see? In this article, I explore four important ways leaders can effectively navigate these challenges and promote healthy disagreement within their teams and organisations.

Acknowledge and address distrust

Distrust is pervasive in our society, and leaders must recognise its impact on the workplace. 

By acknowledging this reality and proactively taking steps to acknowledge and address the issue, executives can create an environment where open dialogue and trust-building are integral to organisational culture. Leaders should actively engage with employees to understand their concerns. Transparent communication serves as a foundation for addressing distrust. Leaders should embrace open and honest communication, provide regular updates on important matters and be transparent about challenges the organisation may face.

Leaders must make a genuine effort to listen to employees' concerns and feedback actively.

Creating opportunities for open dialogue and demonstrating a commitment to understanding the root causes of distrust are crucial. Active listening validates employees' experiences, fosters trust, and promotes a sense of inclusion within the organisation. In the Harvard Business Review article, Begin With Trust, Frances X. Frei and Anne Morriss suggest that creating conditions of trust allows diverse team members to bring their unique perspectives and experiences to the table and can expand the amount of knowledge your team can access—and create an unbeatable advantage.

Great leaders put their self interest aside and role model behaviour by holding themselves and their teams accountable for their actions, as this transparency is fundamental in building trust. When mistakes occur, leaders should take responsibility, offer apologies that truly connect, and take appropriate actions to rectify the situation. Unlike many public high-profile apologies that appear as lip service or simply as a result of being caught, sincerity is key. Transparency in decision-making processes and ensuring fairness in policies and procedures further enhance trust within the organisation. 

Training and development initiatives and recognition and appreciation of effort can be highly beneficial in building trust. Providing employees with training on conflict resolution, emotional intelligence, and active listening equips them with valuable skills to address challenges and understand that others may have different viewpoints. 

Humanise the digital landscape

Digitisation has undoubtedly brought numerous benefits to the workplace but has also contributed to dehumanisation, distancing individuals from genuine human connections. We’re judging people from their shoulders upwards, and, as such, we’re missing so much.  

‘Human’ leaders proactively counteract this trend by emphasising the importance of personal interactions and relationships. Humanising the digital landscape is crucial for fostering healthy disagreement and effective communication in the modern workplace.

In her book Digital Body Language: How to Build Trust and Connection, No Matter the Distance, Erica Dhawan discusses her 4 laws of digital body language in a global hybrid world, when 75% of communication is nonverbal body language.

Dhawan maintains that by following these 4 collectively understood laws, a connection can be maintained no matter the distance:

  • Value visibly
  • Communicate carefully
  • Collaborate confidently
  • Trust totally

In the digital realm, emails, instant messaging, and other text-based communication replace face-to-face interactions. However, as we’ve seen from the fallout of releasing high-profile texts and WhatsApp messages, these mediums lack the nuances of non-verbal cues and can contribute to misinterpretation. Leaders I coach are encouraging video calls or virtual meetings whenever possible to allow for more personal connections and to enhance the effectiveness of their communications. Seeing each other's facial expressions and noticing the body language helps build rapport and fosters better understanding during disagreements.

Leveraging visual and multimedia tools such as infographics and visual presentations can ensure engagement and accessibility, enabling team members to grasp complex ideas more easily. Visual aids can be beneficial in conveying diverse perspectives during disagreements, enhancing clarity and understanding.

By actively modelling behaviours encouraging team members to understand and acknowledge one another's perspectives, leaders can promote a culture of respect and understanding, enabling teams to engage in productive and constructive dialogue. Facilitating the ability for team members to interact outside of their professional roles through something as basic as encouraging ‘chatting’, chatting to each other, chatting to connect even in virtual coffee breaks or team-building activities can create connections, establish relationships and a sense of shared understanding, facilitating healthier and more productive conversations when disagreements arise.

Embrace inclusivity in hybrid working

Hybrid working models have become increasingly prevalent, offering flexibility and increased productivity.
However, leaders must navigate the challenges posed by the diverse demographics within their workforce and recognise that different groups may have distinct needs and preferences regarding hybrid working as, according to McKinsey, ‘Hybrid work also has the potential to create an unequal playing field’.

As we know, when we’re up against it, the culture of busyness is overwhelming. It can be easy to believe that ‘they’re different, they’re difficult’, and the labelling and judgements take over.  As one Director I work with in Hungary described, ‘I’m not in the Jedi Counsel’ with the echo chambers, sameness and groupthink.

In understanding the specific requirements of different groups, inclusive leaders ensure that policies and practices accommodate these diverse needs. Inclusivity can be fostered by involving employees in the decision-making processes related to hybrid work arrangements. Seeking input, asking and gaining feedback from employees of various backgrounds and demographics helps ensure independent thinking is valued and that different perspectives are listened to and considered. Engaging employees in the decision-making process promotes a sense of ownership and inclusivity as they become active participants and indeed allies in shaping the future of hybrid work in the organisation.

Inclusive leaders create policies that are adaptable and responsive to the needs of diverse demographics. This may include offering various remote and in-person work options, allowing for flexible scheduling, and providing resources to support employees with different technological requirements or accessibility needs. Leaders promote equality and fairness in the hybrid working environment by acknowledging and accommodating diverse circumstances.

Clear and consistent communication is essential to keep employees informed about hybrid work policies, expectations, and changes. Additionally, fostering opportunities for open dialogue and active engagement, such as town hall meetings or virtual feedback sessions, allows employees to express their concerns, share ideas, and provide valuable input, ensuring their voices are heard and respected and minimising potential divisions arising from hybrid working arrangements.

Cultivate healthy disagreement

Disagreement is natural and can lead to growth and innovation when managed constructively. Leaders must create an environment that encourages healthy debate and dissenting viewpoints. Disagreeing, yet not disconnecting, involves promoting psychological safety, where employees feel comfortable expressing their opinions without fear of retribution.

Miscommunication often stems from a need for clarity or a failure to communicate respectfully. Leaders should prioritise clear and concise communication, avoiding jargon or ambiguous language that can lead to confusion. Additionally, promoting a culture of respect encourages team members to truly listen, seek clarification when needed, and approach disagreements with professionalism. Creating opportunities for open dialogue, constructive feedback, and conflict resolution enhances effective communication and prevent misunderstandings from escalating.

Encouraging individuals to be independent thinkers, articulate their thoughts, ask clarifying questions, and provide supporting evidence or reasoning helps ensure disagreements are based on a shared understanding of the topic. Clear communication reduces misunderstandings and facilitates more productive discussions. Better thinking, better results.

Argument - orange

Rather than talking ‘at’ each other, it’s about team members being encouraged to listen, and not listen to reply, listen to seeking to understand different viewpoints without judgment. Leaders should model active listening behaviours by demonstrating genuine interest, paraphrasing others' perspectives, and asking follow-up questions. Listening to understand and listening to ignite thinking fosters an environment where individuals feel valued, understood, and respected, even when they hold differing opinions.

By emphasising the importance of constructive criticism, focusing on specific behaviours or ideas rather than personal attacks, and offering guidance on delivering feedback effectively, leaders promote a feedback culture. By being tough on the facts and being open minded on the reasons, individuals feel more at ease giving feedback and sharing their perspectives without fear of retribution.

Disagreements are natural in any workplace, but cultivating a culture of clarity and respect requires constructive conflict resolution.

“As soon as we disconnect, we move inexorably into rigid opposition and then polarisation”.
Nancy Kline

As Lencioni describes in his work on the 5 Dysfunctions, latterly the 5 Behaviours of Cohesive Teams, those leaders who promote open and passionate dialogue and provide tools or training help their teams navigate conflicts constructively. Encouraging individuals to find common ground, seek win-win solutions, and practice empathy in conflict resolution fosters a culture where disagreements can be addressed respectfully and productively.

So much of my work in my coaching and leadership practice is working with leaders to recognise and celebrate the value of diverse perspectives, experiences, and expertise within the team. Actively encouraging and leveraging diverse viewpoints leads to better decision-making and innovation. Embracing intellectual diversity or diversity of thought helps foster cultures where disagreement is viewed as an opportunity for growth and learning rather than a source of conflict.

Organisations create an environment where healthy disagreement thrives by cultivating a culture of clarity and respect. Clear communication, listening to understand, listening to ignite thinking, constructive feedback, effective conflict resolution, and embracing intellectual diversity contribute to a workplace culture that values open dialogue, independent thinking, mutual respect, and continuous learning. In such an environment, individuals feel empowered to express their ideas, challenge assumptions, and engage in robust discussions, ultimately driving innovation and fostering a culture of continuous improvement.

As leaders navigate through this polarised society, our expectations are for them to proactively address these workplace challenges.

By taking action, leaders can shape a positive and inclusive work environment that promotes healthy disagreement, collaboration, connection and respectful communication.

Leaders that counteract negative influences by fostering a culture prioritising empathy, respect, and constructive engagement, create a workplace where employees feel valued, listened to, and empowered.