Being “Real” Creates Opportunities in Business. Isn’t It Time We Bring Constructive Dialogue to Our Conversations?

Michal Katz
Michal Katz Head of Investment and Corporate Banking
January 19, 2021

Tomorrow we will inaugurate a new president during a historically tense moment in our nation’s history.  In recent weeks, we witnessed a violent incursion on the United States Capitol after months of strident language surrounding the election results.  The campaign itself saw the most heated political speech in recent memory.  The rhetorical temperature was so high it poisoned meaningful engagement. A significant percentage of people declined to respond honestly ‒ if at all ‒ to pollsters. Essentially, people believed sharing their perspective could have negative consequences. 

And this phenomenon isn’t contained to political campaigns.  Over the past decade, America has increasingly been forced to grapple with significant cultural questions about our nation’s past, including systemic bias, racial and gender diversity, and economic equity. These debates have been pitched on the best of days and deeply divisive on the worst.

I can’t help but feel like we have fallen short in part because we are unable to have a healthy, honest discourse.  From the halls of Congress and the ivory towers of academia to town squares and places of worship, we have a long history of promoting assembly and freedom of expression.  And yet over the past several decades the verve and vigor of healthy debate have been sapped by those willing to place factional agendas ahead of intellectual richness and exchange.  

I believe we are paying the price for curtailing free expression rather than cultivating it. We live in a moment that demands frank conversations, but we seem unable to do just that.  In an era when dominant voices espouse tolerance, many have proved willing to silence those whose opinions they disagree with.  When we stop listening to opposing voices and simply dismiss them, the risk of preventing any sort of shared dialogue increases exponentially.

What are we missing out on when we shut out opposing views, whether they are fellow voters or coworkers?

A lot.  Recently, the work of four professors was highlighted in the Harvard Business Review. Noting that decades of research have shown that diverse teams are better at developing creative solutions to problems and are beneficial to companies, these researchers wanted to test whether ideological diversity, rather than diverse perspectives that come from experiences of class, race, gender, or profession, is also important.

To do so, they turned to what is perhaps the world’s largest collective knowledge product: Wikipedia.  On the site, each article is the product of editor teams.  Taking into account the political affiliation of the editors and political articles, they found editor groups with more ideological diversity were strongly associated with higher page quality.  Why?  Ideologically balanced teams engage in more debates but with less toxic conflict than teams that effectively silence dissent.  The researchers concluded the power of politically diverse perspectives can positively influence the quality of dialogue.

The question then is how do we ensure we are bringing in the full spectrum of perspectives?

We would be well served to take a page from corporate America’s playbook.  While policymakers and academics have the luxury of prioritizing ideological purity over pragmatism, those of us who run businesses focus on the best ideas and relevant facts at hand no matter who or where they come from.  The ability to see the full picture, to understand different perspectives, opportunities and risks exposure for investors, is at the heart of our success.  An inability to create an environment that embraces heterogeneity in efforts to solve our clients’ problems will inevitably mean falling behind. 

For me, there are key takeaways from the business world that would serve our broader national discourse well.

First, tell hard truths. Giving the right advice may mean giving unpopular advice. Counseling a client to walk away from a transaction, a candidate or partnership is not often what they want to hear.  But while the truth can be difficult, a favorable outcome earns trust, loyalty and deep appreciation in the long run.

Second, be willing to put yourself in your opponent’s shoes.  Effective M&A negotiators, like Chess masters, anticipate their opponent’s strategy, tactics and next moves.  To do this, they have to understand their position and motivations.  The ability to relate, understand and empathize, disarms and can allow for the formation of meaningful relationships despite being situational competitors.

Third, be able to prioritize your achievements.  In business, we learn to balance small wins with our ultimate goal.  We live in an era of instant gratification that rewards an acerbic 140-character rebuke over a measured discussion.  It would behoove us to look ahead, take in the full picture, and consider the full measure of our actions before proceeding.

Finally, in my capacity as a leader, there are some guiding principles that I keep in mind to ensure I am fostering an environment that produces thoughtful, resilient conversations.

  • Treat people with respect
  • Remember that leadership is not the maintenance of the status quo
  • Dispel the notion that the most powerful voice is the correct one
  • Empower people to speak their mind
  • Foster teams that are comfortable having their assumptions challenged
  • Be contrarian: embrace the role of devil’s advocate
  • Remember those who are comfortable rarely upend or remake the world

We handicap ourselves when we shrink the space necessary for diverse ideas, opinions and dialogue and the benefits that come with them. As we prepare for a new administration to take power this coming week, I am taking the opportunity to reflect on what I can do as a leader to ensure my team feels empowered to speak honestly about the challenges we face and the opportunities we see to develop the best solutions. As in business, we need the most effective ideas for our country, not necessarily the most popular or the most repeated. Let’s shake up the conversation, tell hard truths and at the end of the day, remember what the late Senator Ted Kennedy used to say, “what divides us pales in comparison to what unites us.”

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