These risks are compounded by increasing expectations that companies should practice “corporate statesmanship” by playing a more visible public role in social and political issues. Tellingly, CEOs are split almost evenly on whether to take a public stand on controversial social issues or not.
Even so, inaction is not necessarily the better strategy. Polarization can also affect businesses that do not speak out, through decreased customer loyalty, market unpredictability caused by public misinformation, or foregone opportunities due to fear of a backlash. Silence can also be perceived as tacit support for one side of an issue. For example, Uber faced a widespread boycott for its reported silence regarding a U.S. travel ban on majority-Muslim countries in 2017, which some viewed as an endorsement of the policy.
Bridging the Divide
If both advocating for a position and remaining silent can backfire, what actions can CEOs take to effectively reduce division — and protect their businesses in increasingly polarized times?
First, get your own house in order.
Instead of focusing on the false binary of simply taking a public stance or staying silent, CEOs would be better off understanding and addressing the context of rising polarization and doing so in a strategic manner.
Before engaging in public debates, leaders should ensure that they have addressed polarization within their own organizations. Not only will this help avoid accusations of hypocrisy, but it will also create a stronger foundation for external influence.
The workplace is one of the few remaining social spaces for repeated intergroup interaction and cooperation. We may bowl alone, but we still work together. Each day, we engage with colleagues who don’t necessarily share our social and political views in order to complete a common mission, creating positive connections across lines of difference that may not exist in broader society. This is a valuable and major source of social cohesion in its own right.
Furthermore, a divisive environment can negatively affect employee sentiment — and performance. A 2016 survey found that 24% of workers said a divisive political environment led to negative work outcomes, including poor work quality and lower productivity. To resolve and avoid these negative effects, leaders can make efforts to bridge gaps and foster cooperation between employee groups in the workplace. Know thyself: Listen to your employees to better understand their backgrounds, interests, and values — especially across different cultural and geographical groups. Leaders can accomplish this through roundtable discussions, anonymous surveys, and other formats that encourage open communication and feedback from employees. If leaders better understand their teams and organizations, they will be better able to address common employee concerns. For example, after software company Basecamp reportedly banned discussions about social and political issues, some 30% of their employees resigned, an outcome that may have been avoided if leadership had a clearer understanding of what their employees needed or wanted.
Adopt a consistent stance: Explicitly outline your company’s philosophy regarding engagement on social issues, and ensure that it is consistent with previously established company policies, values, and purpose. Clear and stable expectations can not only reduce confusion and inappropriate behavior, they also can prevent disappointment by employees who feel the company should be doing more — or less — on social issues or who feel that policies are being inconsistently applied. For example, Starbucks reportedly faced criticism in 2020 when employees noted that Pride clothing was permitted workplace attire while Black Lives Matter clothing was banned. Ultimately, the company reversed the ban and adopted a consistent policy. Create common ground: Make intergroup contact a core organizational value by building shared identities around apolitical interests. Corporate volunteering programs, which can build a sense of unity around a common social interest, are one powerful lever to create meaningful interactions. For example, the American Red Cross Los Angeles Region created a program to bring together members of different faiths — including Baha’i, Muslim, Christian, and Buddhist — to discuss the shared goal of increasing diversity in blood donations and organizing community blood drives.
Foster healthy engagement: Create clear rules and norms for open discussions that encourage honest and respectful communication — and even disagreement — between employees. Leaders can contribute to productive communication by creating open forums for cross-group engagement, keeping a watchful eye for misinformation, and encouraging civil and inclusive behavior. For example, when Cisco created staff forums to discuss difficult social issues, it also implemented a comment “color spectrum” to provide guidance on how employees can keep conversations respectful. Engage the hidden majority: Ensure that people with moderate or unexpressed views feel comfortable within the organization. A 2018 study placed 67% of Americans in the “Exhausted Majority,” who say they feel fatigued by politics and feel forgotten in current debates. These employees may feel unwelcome in a highly politicized environment. For example, Starbucks faced criticism in 2015 after encouraging customers to discuss racial issues with employees, many of whom felt uncomfortable having such discussions at work but may have felt unable to refuse. As then-CEO Howard Schultz later commented, “These discussions needed to be had, but not in the way we had them.” Leaders can create a safe and respectful environment in which these individuals do not feel pressured to adopt a public or artificial stance.
Communicate a clear purpose: A company’s purpose is the bridge between its internal aspirations and capabilities and its external impact, including its ability to address polarization. However, relying mainly on media soundbites or social media posts to communicate purpose can backfire; people are more likely to misunderstand ambiguously brief or ill-defined statements. Fortunately, leaders can easily engage in richer interactions with a company’s immediate stakeholders. When engaging with customers and external stakeholders, leaders should also ensure that they use terminology that is simple and easy to understand. For example, Ben & Jerry’s includes clear definitions of the issues they support on their website, which helps prevent confusion or misinterpretation. Ensure respectful interactions: Fighting misinformation is not enough to reduce polarization if the tone of public communication is hostile. More in Common is an organization run by one of us (Mathieu) that develops initiatives to address fracturing within society. Its research suggests that 70% of Germans and 86% of French people are concerned about increasingly hateful public rhetoric.
CEOs can have a degree of direct influence over the behavior of customers, suppliers, and other stakeholders within their external business ecosystem. Through these relationships, leaders can broaden their influence and impact, especially on issues of common interest. A strong ecosystem can amplify the expression and realization of a company’s purpose and afford expanded possibilities to address the context of polarization. Influence your ecosystem.