We are all constantly primed to side with one ‘truth‘ or the other. That matters because we bring our whole person to work, which means we bring an ingrained bias towards judgement and agreement / disagreement to our workplace conversations and interactions. That’s what a leader is up against.
You’re also not supposed to talk about politics, sex or religion at work. We’re breaking that rule today.
Like many people around the world, I watched the inauguration of the American President, Jospeh Biden, last week, with curiosity and anticipation. I was struck by the contrast between his inauguration speech and that of his predecessor’s, Donald Trump.
President Trump’s speech in January 2017 foreshadowed the conflict which bubbled and boiled throughout his presidency with his ruminations on “American carnage”. President Biden’s speech called forth America’s better self when he said “What are the common objects we as Americans love, that define us as Americans? I think we know. Opportunity, security, liberty, dignity, respect, honor, and, yes, the truth.”
Rather than focus on what divided Americans over the previous 11 weeks, or indeed 4 years, he called for unity, based on values which resonate for Americans of all political stripes.
While in previous years this exhortation may have been considered anodyne, in 2021, it was striking in its uncommonness. The world in 2020 and 2021 offers copious evidence that we are more focused on what divides us than on what we are aligned around.
Witness the bitter divide between Leavers and Remainers in the campaign for and against Brexit, and in the referendum’s aftermath.
Witness the commitment of the government of Boris Johnson in the UK to find differences at all cost between the UK and the EU to further his political aims, irrespective of the economic cost to Britain’s citizens.
Already in 2021 the prospect of a Border poll in Northern Ireland has been raised. An Irish Times poll found that 51% of the Northern Irish respondents believed that a referendum should be held to address the question of whether or not Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland. The article was ironically subtitled: Unity referendum would be ‘incredibly divisive’.
This border poll situation illustrates the curse of our modern society. We are constantly asked to agree or disagree with one person’s, group’s or political party’s ideas, propositions or arguments. They are inevitably framed as binary choices. But life isn’t black and white. Not only is there a lot of grey, but there is no need to choose Door Number One or Door Number Two.
In our every day life, this is often framed as “Do you agree with me?” And it is that construction which is so problematic.
To show up as a leader in the world, we must be in relationship with others. However, when we require that someone agrees with us, we take away the ability of another to be in relationship AND to hold their own perspective. Because if they hold a different perspective, we turn that into a rejection of us and make them wrong. That is the path of egoism and narcissism.
It is a leader’s job to not focus on agreement and disagreement, but to come from a place of curiosity. Why?
When we come from curiosity we don’t start from a place of advocacy – “This is what I think: do you agree with me?” When we come from curiosity, we come from “What do you think? What does the world look like from your perspective?” Inherent in this approach is an acceptance of the other as they are, not as we want them to be. And that acceptance means that they get to hold different views than us, and have different values. And that their life experiences are as valid as ours.
Next we need to focus on what it is that we share and have in common:
- “What I like / love /. value / appreciate about what you said is…”
- “What I am curious about is…”
- “Interesting. Tell me more about…”
Notice that the world doesn’t need your agreement or disagreement. It needs your curiosity. It needs you to seek what it is that you can align around. For it is from alignment that new possibilities can emerge.
Imagine a world where Republicans and Democrats aligned around the values they share. What would be possible for Americans?
Imagine if the United Kingdom had explored what they were aligned around, what new relationship could they have co-created with the EU?
Imagine if nationalists and unionists in Northern Ireland engaged in open hearted conversation about the type of society they want to create rather than ones that get reduced to the colour of the fabric of the flags they fly. What future might be possible for their children born today?
The search for agreement sows the seeds of division because it ignores what is actually agreed and focuses on what is not shared. The search for alignment turns that approach on its head: it starts with what we are aligned around by including everyone and their views and uses that as a platform to build bridges to a future not yet agreed.
Alignment is the path of possibility.
Imagine living in a society or working in an organization where alignment and inclusiveness were the norm. What would be possible then?