Outside the office, we have the option to pick our friends. With our families, we have the option to co-exist. Not so our co-workers. As a leader, you need them to be able not only to co-exist, but to work together. I asked John Paul Lederach, one of the world’s best-known peacemakers, for his tips for navigating the troubled times as a founder or business leader, especially in the aftermath of a contested U.S. presidential election. Currently affiliated with The Omidyar Group’s Humanity United and a professor emeritus of peacebuilding at Notre Dame, Lederach has worked in conflict zones all over the world, including in Colombia, West Africa and Myanmar. He is also a winner of the Niwano Peace Prize and the author of, among others, The Moral Imagination, The Art And Soul Of Peacebuilding.
If you’re just establishing your company and have a handful of employees, you need to articulate ground rules: Your company owns a culture of respect, so that different people can work alongside each other.
But it’s not, unfortunately, as simple as mission statements and articulations. You may feel that the company’s missions and incentives are aligned so that people will devote themselves to what you’re working on without bringing conflict into the workplace. To believe that is to deny human nature and the extent to which politics infuses almost everything in many parts of the United States and the world now.
You also can’t mandate conversations that nourish working relationships despite deep differences. Leading in a time of polarization means living out the culture of respect. That may mean overcoming your own instinct to react negatively to another’s point of view that challenges your core values. In other words, you need to establish a culture of respect for everyone, no exceptions, including people all along the political spectrum. In the United States, that means both Republican and Democratic voters.
“Respect is a principle that we live into,” Lederach said, pointing out that the root of the word, in Latin, is “to look.” Respect means to look, and to look again. People on the left and right need to give each other a second look.
Lederach outlined three elements of culture to pay attention to and offered a helpful way to handle an especially tough scenario: an offensive remark in a meeting.
Where Are You In The Culture?
Lederach suggests establishing a respectful culture starts with leaders, with defining your own core values, so that you can present yourself honestly. It’s less about identifying your own political leanings and more about why you have those leanings. “There’s a level of vulnerability to defining yourself that enables you to interact with others without reaction or retreat,” he said. “Put out the things you’re concerned about, for your company or your group.”
When you make yourself vulnerable, you suggest to others that the workplace is a safe space to be honest. This sounds counterintuitive: Don’t you want people simply to leave their politics at home?
The problem is that if people don’t feel free to express themselves, you risk driving people’s thoughts, values and actions underground. Not only do you lose their creativity, but “that kind of separation is real poison in the organization,” he said.
Are You And Other Leaders Anxious About Challenge? Or Invitational?
Rather than meeting challenges and political conflicts with anxiety, meet challenge with openness and curiosity, he said. “Where challenge is avoided, the message is that it’s not a safe space.” That means finding small but intentional ways of reducing anxiety in the organization. As a leader, you exemplify that presence and model language that helps people talk about differences – Black or white, LGBQT. It can also mean inviting dissent and other points of view, even when they touch on political topics. Do not belittle an unpopular view, even when it challenges your core values. “Humiliation will reinforce the message that this is not a safe space,” he said.
For months or years, the United States has been living in a culture of anxiety. “I feel this myself,” Lederach said. “If I’m in a grocery store and something political comes up, I’m looking for every clue for which side of the equation to be on” in order to understand the potential for volatility.
Are People Encouraged To Stay The Course?
Model the behavior for people and set an intentional culture that encourages staying in relationships and talking differences through, even when the conversations are hard.
The central idea is that “we can be different … and remain in a relationship.” Celebrate those relationships that exist across time and difference, like that between Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Antonin Scalia.
In short, he said, the three ideas are: Offer Honesty, Be Open, Stay Connected.
One Rule of Thumb
A healthy organization works against this backdrop of culture to identify decision points and a clear process for making decisions. When those process are functioning well, you open up the space to look at relationships, Lederach said.
But there is a rule of thumb in the peacemaker world: If you argue with the same person over the same issue three or more times, you’re addressing the quality of the relationship: perhaps fairness, power, access or participation. There may be embedded wounds from a previous encounter within the organization, or an employee may be bringing baggage from another setting or their personal life.
A Tough Scenario
I gave Lederach a tough scenario. Suppose in a public meeting – say, a boardroom – someone makes a racist or misogynist remark, or a man keeps interrupting a woman, or someone makes a slighting remark against voters to one side or the other.
“Move first to description and then to prescription,” said Lederach. “You might say, ‘The impact of what you just said is hurtful to a lot of people.’”
“This is not what we will do in our organization. We will not use that language. And when we heard something that is said that puts down people or humiliates people, we won’t accept that.”
Establishing a culture of respect can be done, Lederach said. But “I don’t think there’s any way to come at this if the commitment doesn’t come from the top.” The culture of respect is about your identity as a company, rather than any specific metric.
Start with the idea: “This is tied to how we’re going to choose to be. Leadership often wants to move quickly to performative statements for public consumptions, without committing to and incentivizing a shift in behavior throughout the organization.”