When asked if he would have more progressives in his cabinet, Joe Biden replied that his administration would ‘look like America’. Given that we are a nation as deeply divided as we have ever been, it will be an unruly bunch, to say the least. There are deep divisions not only between the Executive and Legislative branches, but within each party as well.
Some people think that divisiveness precludes getting anything done. Certainly recent history seems to confirm this dismal prediction. Does it really have to be that way?
The business community is gradually learning that diversity in all things can actually be turned into an advantage, when skillfully managed. This is particularly true when it is diversity in perspective, academic background and ideology, and also in temperament. Though it may take longer to arrive at agreements, groups that include diverse thinkers are far better at creating innovative and effective solutions than groups of like-minded people.
The kinds of differences we are experiencing in America in this moment are of a different nature than simply ones of perspective and temperament. They are not only differences about solutions to problems, (though they are this too – think immigration, criminal justice, income inequality, healthcare, abortion) they also seem to be about the fundamental values that underlie the differences. They run deeper, more rooted in identity, definitions of morality and views of what is right and wrong, good and evil. Can these kinds of differences really be managed?
There has been a great deal of speculation about how we got to this point. Social media ‘echo chambers’, lack of truly objective media, largely segregated living arrangements, historic regional differences, and most recently, the tone being modeled at the top of government, are all blamed. It is most likely a combination of all of these; It has been increasing for decades, well before the current administration. It may not matter much because we cannot easily change any of these things. The only thing we can change is our own behavior.
It takes more than just putting everyone in the same room and letting them duke it out. There are some tried and true methods for bridging even the deepest differences in order to arrive at agreements and get things done, including the following:
*De-couple problem-solving from politics, to the extent possible. Yes, everyone is interested in being looked upon favorably by one’s own group and everyone wants to be ‘right’, but the goal is to solve the problems that challenge the nation. This cannot be emphasized too strongly or repeated too often. Doing one’s job has to override ego.
* Identify and acknowledge the things that everyone cares about. We may have to reach pretty far out to get there, but certainly there are some common wants, like prosperity & security for the country as a whole (it may be stretch to say for ‘all’), fairness, equality in opportunity and a shot at a good life for all citizens……whatever people of a broad range of affiliations can agree on.
* With these ultimate ends in mind, address specific issues by asking big broad questions that take into consideration competing interests. For example, on immigration, it’s not ‘Do we need to build a wall?’ or even ‘How do we keep out undesirable people?’ but ‘How can we regain control of our borders by identifying the kind of people we want and those we don’t and executing the resulting policies humanely?’
* Take time to allow everyone to express his or her beliefs and opinions, with no idea ever being demeaned or judged out of hand. Create an environment in which people are all working together as a team to achieve common goals, regardless of party or any other affiliation. Solving problems is part rational and part pure creative process that calls for considering a broad array of ideas, even if some seem improbable. Problem-solving is not competitive; never ever pit people against one another.
* Shift the way we think and talk about differences and how we resolve them: Compromise must be rebranded as a good thing. Compromise does not equal capitulation or lack of principle. We are social beings who are individually unique, which makes compromise a necessary condition for survival. In fact, when people come together with shared purpose,
the outcome can be much better than compromise solutions in which everyone gives up something; they can be new and better solutions than anyone had considered before.
* Recognize that the majority of the population is pragmatic and moderate. People want solutions that work to solve the problems that affect their lives. They may scream for ideologically extreme positions, whether progressive or conservative, but at the end of the day, most will welcome compromise solutions that fix problems.
Peggy Noonan, ever the pragmatist herself, in a recent WSJ column, said about the election “the split decision amounted to a reassertion of centrism”. If that’s true (and I hope it is), and if Biden is able to set the tone and create the conditions for the above things, we will be on our way to a better, stronger, more unified Union.
Dana Morris-Jones is a mediator, facilitator and organizational development consultant. Her book The Power of Difference: From Conflict to Collaboration was published in 2016