Since the presidential inauguration just over a month ago, I have been reflecting that if any truth about America in 2021 is held to be self-evident it is division. It is clear to see that political opponents have become ideological enemies, seeing their counterparts not just as sources of honest disagreement, but proponents of dangerous bad faith.
Yet there is also a glimmer of hope that that an apparently divided nation does not wish to remain so. Interestingly, all voters polled prior to the election said their candidate “should primarily focus on addressing the concerns of all Americans, even if it means disappointing some of his supporters.” The new President readily picked up in his Inaugural address: “To overcome these challenges, to restore the soul and secure the future of America… requires the most elusive of all things in a democracy – unity.”
What stood out in Biden’s speech – and what should stand out for all business leaders – was the language of values. President Biden reached for values to define the country he wishes to lead and rebuild: “we look ahead in our uniquely American way, restless, bold, optimistic”. In his approach since then – for example, his recognition this week of the devastating toll COVID-19 has had on families across America – he has continued to appeal to the common values that unite the nation.
The same is true for our organizations. Often it feels that within the workplace, made up of people from different life experiences, personal aspirations and cultural grounding, that our starting points and basic assumptions have become irreconcilable, leading to what feels like relentless divisiveness. If any of us are to unify our organizations it is common values that offer the potential bridge.
While beliefs and personal experience have and will continue to divide people, values have the potential to build tentative connections. Single issues will inevitably continue to prove polarising. But through the weight of words and actions, senior business leaders can reach beyond divides by pointing to wider objectives:
Recognise unconscious programming: We all have unconscious programming, based on our life circumstances and experiences. We need to be aware of this so that, rather than letting this programming guide our lives, we equip ourselves to choose powerfully. This is what an understanding of values helps us to achieve.
Appreciate the values of others: We need to understand the values that are held dear by the core people in our life and the company we work in. Values hold the key to so many of the things we aspire to. Quite simply, they are the foundation of our entire lives: the lasting and fundamental beliefs we hold and act against, however circumstances change. Appreciation of the values of others will help us see the world through their eyes and build sustainable, harmonious relationships. The source of disputes that are often rooted in a clash of values can be resolved through better empathy for contrasting perspectives.
Govern through common values: There are some anchors so important, some ideals so strong, that no amount of division can erode. In America for example, family could prove to be a unifying value for Biden. Research last year found that family is the strongest source of identity: 80% said that their identity as a parent was highly important to them and 74% as a partner or spouse, against 44% who said the same about their religion, 37% their race and ethnicity, and 34% their political party.
If there is a narrow strip of common ground on which we can seek to build it is surely in areas such as this. Between the values of individuals and the organization, there are shared beliefs and common understandings to which we can appeal: the beginnings of what could become programmes to bring people closer together. Often shared values provide a tiebreaker, offering a mechanism to settle challenging decisions—to see which option is most aligned with our values and will contribute to a more successful, productive life.
The work to achieve this will not be easy and the results will not be quick, but the values that unite people are enduring, and in that lies opportunity in an otherwise divisive. Just as the new President has already shown he is willing to speak in terms of values, the challenge for leaders will not only be speaking in this language but governing in it too.
Commentary by Dr. Mandeep Rai. Here’s what you’ve missed?