Practical ideas for managing polarization at work

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Steve Kelman flags a paper that suggests that a "receptive mindset" can help bridge polarization gaps inside organizations.

People having sharply differing views both about issues facing their organization and about issues facing society is a fact of life. My Kennedy School colleague Julia Minson, and Harvard Business School professor Francesca Gino, have written a wonderful piece in the new issue of the Harvard Business Review, called Managing a Polarized Workforce: How to foster debate and promote trust. 

They have the business world and not government in mind, but the level of strong disagreement is likely to be even greater in government than business, because in a company there is an important shared value (trying to make a profit) that might not exist in a government organization, and because government folks are more likely to have strong values about what policies are good for society that engender conflict.

Like all the best work from the "other side of the river" from Cambridge, Mass. (where the Kennedy School is), work appearing in the Harvard Business Review is both academically informed and very practical.

The authors provide evidence for the plausible idea that most people find workplace disagreements unpleasant, and destructive to relationships and productivity. However, one point the authors make is that there is evidence that we often think others are more polarized from us than we are: in one survey, only 20% of Democrats thought that most police officers are bad people, but Republicans thought that half of Democrats would have that opinion. In research Minson and Gino conducted, liberals were asked to listen to a speech by  Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and conservatives to one by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), and both groups overestimated how negative their reactions to the speech would be.

The key message of the article—which is in line with a lot of research over the years—is that conflict can in fact spur better ideas and creativity. (Remember that this is one of the classic arguments on behalf of free speech, that in a "marketplace of ideas" better ideas will tend to come forth and flourish.) 

For conflict to be constructive, though, people must approach it with what they call a "receptive mindset," thinking about what they can learn from a disagreement rather than only about winning or losing the argument. The authors thus urge people engaged in a conflict to view information the other person is presenting through the eyes of that person, to "learn why a colleague sees things differently." One conflict resolution coach has people, when arguing, "focus on what they might learn from their colleague and to think of questions that could help them understand their colleague's perspective." 

Another suggests, "Ask your opponent about his or her views, listen to the answer, and restate it in your own words to make sure you understand it correctly." One executive, the authors report, is "careful to thank people who challenge her at meetings."

The authors argue that word choice plays an important role in creating constructive conflict. They used a natural language processing algorithm to identify words and phrases that lead people to be perceived as receptive to listening to other points of view.  They suggest hedging a claim with a phrase such as "I think it's possible that…," emphasizing areas of agreement with the phrase, "I think we both want to…," and acknowledging other perspectives with "I see your point…" They found that people who used these phrases tend to resolve conflicts more quickly.

Some of the suggestions, such as using phrases such as "I see your point," are pretty easy to implement, and I'm going to challenge myself to do so in my everyday life. But I will confess that I fear their larger points about developing a receptive mindset and learning from what others say rather than just trying to beat them are so hard to practice and might be be a bridge too far, at least for me. 

Maybe it's because I am a New Yorker, maybe it's because academics are trained to vanquish others in argument. I agree with Minson and Gino in principle, and I promise to try. But I am not confident I can succeed.