Ten tips for leading in a polarised world

The past decade has seen increasing polarisation of language, identities and opinions as positions become more extreme and less able to engage with one another. The raised eyebrow or disapproving comment of yesteryear has moved at speed towards “cancellation” and discomfort with saying the wrong thing (read: having an opinion) for fear of copping abuse.

What does this mean for an organisation? The damage that the effects of polarisation can have on workplace culture is significant. We know that a psychologically safe work environment is a precondition for widespread innovation, creativity and problem solving. In a psychologically safe workplace, people can raise problems and raise their head above the parapet without fear of recrimination, whether social shaming, online abuse or missing out on a promotion.

Here are ten tips for leaders on navigating these choppy waters.

1. Embrace diversity and inclusion

As a leader, embrace diversity and inclusion – and that doesn’t mean just symbolically with empty words. Provide space for the different strengths and thinking styles that make up your organisation or team, helping team members to figuratively embrace others who are different from themselves. Openly recognise and celebrate the unique perspectives and backgrounds of your team members. A leader's role is to create an environment where diverse voices are not just tolerated but valued.

2. Promote psychological safety

Encourage active listening within your organisation. Create opportunities for team members to express their opinions and concerns. Actively listening to diverse viewpoints can help in finding common ground and fostering a collaborative atmosphere. Demonstrate the values and behaviours you expect from your team. Be a role model for respectful discourse, empathy, and commitment to the organisation's mission. Your leadership sets the tone for the organisational or team culture.

Encouraging gentle and kindly expressed disagreement about relatively “safe” topics – the best way to solve a programming problem, say, or design a website or stage a conference – may also lead to kindly expressed dynamic conversation on podcasts, books and even politics. When people like each other and feel respected, they are most likely to be able to navigate disagreement.

3. Acknowledgement goes a long way

Expressing empathy and acknowledging pain goes a long way and you do not have to take sides to do this. People want to feel seen and heard. By acknowledging the emotional impact of societal divisions, you foster a culture of compassion. When you can see two (or more) different angles on an emotive issue, it’s okay and even useful to articulate both rather than bow out and acknowledge neither. This approach can build trust and cohesion, allowing the team to collaborate effectively despite external polarities.

4. It's okay to disagree

Everything improves with practice – even disagreement! Most people have a lot to learn by listening to perspectives they don’t agree with at first. Avoiding discussion of any topic that might lead to disagreement means diminishing your team’s or your organisation’s skills in negotiating disagreements about anything at all. It’s okay to disagree. It’s an opportunity to learn about listening and negotiating.

5. When someone gets it wrong

The mission and value of an organisation help to define how much internal disagreement it can tolerate. When a person gets it wrong, either by failing to acknowledge the pain or concerns of another, or by pursuing an action that endangers the comfort of others, it’s okay to let them know. Do so in a kind and respectful way, discussing how it happened and how everyone can move forward. We won’t get it right every time, but we can consider the most respectful way to navigate the difficulty.

6. Asking questions

A leader doesn’t have to know everything. If you are curious about something, just ask. If you ask questions in a way that shows you are authentic and you want to learn, not judge, you are providing an example for others to follow. Polarisation often stems from an individual's perception of their own identity. Seeking input and opinions from others serves as a valuable means to enrich an organisation and provides individual staff and volunteers with opportunities to express their views and emotions. As a leader, showing initiative and asking staff how they are experiencing the workplace gives them an opportunity to share any concerns they have with you.

7. Social media usage

Social media tends to blur the line between individuals as employees and individuals as people outside the work context. It is important that when employees post on social media they are aware they are connected to an organisation and ensure that it is clear that their views do not represent their organisation. Staff who are connected by social media outside of work are likely to see one another’s private posts, and this can be a source of tension within the workplace.

8. Policies and expectations

It is a good idea to review your policies to ensure they reflect the organisation’s expectations in relation to values and behaviour. For example, check your social media policy in this light. Consider what behaviour the organisation wishes to prevent and to promote, and how it aligns with the organisation’s values. If you haven’t communicated your expectations to staff then it’s difficult for them to make their own choices about how to adapt to organisational requirements.

9. Conflict resolution skills

A polarised cultural climate outside your organisation requires strong conflict resolution skills from leaders within your organisation. Develop and promote conflict resolution skills for yourself as a leader and among your team members. Equip yourselves with the tools to address disagreements constructively, fostering an environment where differences are managed effectively rather than allowed to lead to division.

10. The individual and the community

Balancing individual needs with those of the organisation and community is a nuanced endeavour. As a leader it’s important to foster an environment where diverse perspectives are valued and, simultaneously, to align staff aspirations with the overarching mission and values of the organisation. You should be striving for a symbiotic relationship where individuality is respected and organisational goals are advanced. This equilibrium might be more delicate now than ever before, but when it works well, it allows you to create a workplace culture that values both personal well-being and the organisation's mission.

Find more helpful tools and resources on the ICDA website.

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