Leading in the Age of Polarization


Conflict sells. It grabs people’s attention and taps into their emotions. It divides people into groups who are “for” or “against” a particular thing. And when conflict is fed with 24-hour instant everything media, it tends to grow and push people even farther apart. How does one lead in the midst of such polarization? With a level head, an open mind . . . and it never hurts to have a pair or two of iron shorts.

A few key tips for leading in the age of polarization

  • Identify the issue(s) at the heart of the conflict. As people start to line up on “sides” the central issue often becomes more and more abstract until it is simply about “us” and “them.” The reason people may be fired up on one side of an issue may be different from the primary concerns of those in the opposing camp. Don’t make assumptions. Ask. You have to be clear on people’s concerns before you can identify the most appropriate response.
  • Transparency builds bridges. The greater the conflict, the greater the need for open communications. You know what you are hoping to accomplish, so your actions make sense to you. The people you would hope to influence can’t read your mind, so tell them your intent. Even if you think they already understand. Real or perceived gamesmanship and secrecy feed mistrust. And when people don’t understand the details of a situation, it is a natural inclination to fill in the gaps with assumptions consistent with the narrative they believe to be true.
  • Strive for increased understanding. Leaders have to make decisions that not everyone will agree with — that is a given. If your goal is to convince everyone that you are “right,” you are going to have a lot of frustrating days. Instead, make it your goal to better understand the pain point of people with a different perspective. You just might be surprised at how often you can address their concerns and thus reduce resistance to also addressing your own. Looking for the win-win doesn’t make you a weak leader, it makes you a smart one
  • Maintaining respect is a reflection on you. Sure, there will be days when you are frustrated by someone intentionally or unintentionally twisting the facts a situation . . . or questioning your intent . . . or making an inflammatory comment. In such situations it can be helpful to remember that anything but a respectful and professional response diminishes your credibility and adds fuel to the combatants’ fire. Respect is more about the character of the leader than it is about whether the recipient deserved it.

As a leader, you may not be able to eliminate polarization, but you can keep your focus on the destination not the distractions. Invite people into understanding rather than pushing them away. Take the high road, even with it is lonely . . . and don’t forget your iron shorts.

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