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Rising political polarization can have serious ramifications for businesses. Companies that speak out on controversial issues can face decreased customer loyalty from those with opposing beliefs, increased internal conflict between employees, or reduced sales from boycotts. Furthermore, taking a public stance can often exacerbate social tensions. For example, after the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida, Delta Air Lines was reported to have eliminated an NRA member discount. Despite affecting very few people, the move further heightened tensions around gun control and prompted state lawmakers to threaten the airline’s fuel tax exemptions.
Even so, inaction is not necessarily the better strategy. Polarization can also affect businesses that do not speak out, through decreased customer loyalty, market unpredictability caused by public misinformation, or foregone opportunities due to fear of a backlash. Silence can also be perceived as tacit support for one side of an issue. For example, Uber faced a widespread boycott for its reported silence regarding a U.S. travel ban on majority-Muslim countries in 2017, which some viewed as an endorsement of the policy.
These risks are compounded by increasing expectations that companies should practice “corporate statesmanship” by playing a more visible public role in social and political issues. Tellingly, CEOs are split almost evenly on whether to take a public stand on controversial social issues or not.
If both advocating for a position and remaining silent can backfire, what actions can CEOs take to effectively reduce division — and protect their businesses in increasingly polarized times?
Bridging the Divide
Instead of focusing on the false binary of simply taking a public stance or staying silent, CEOs would be better off understanding and addressing the context of rising polarization and doing so in a strategic manner.
First, get your own house in order.
Before engaging in public debates, leaders should ensure that they have addressed polarization within their own organizations. Not only will this help avoid accusations of hypocrisy, but it will also create a stronger foundation for external influence.
The workplace is one of the few remaining social spaces for repeated intergroup interaction and cooperation. We may bowl alone, but we still work together. Each day, we engage with colleagues who don’t necessarily share our social and political views in order to complete a common mission, creating positive connections across lines of difference that may not exist in broader society. This is a valuable and major source of social cohesion in its own right.
Furthermore, a divisive environment can negatively affect employee sentiment — and performance. A 2016 survey found that 24% of workers said a divisive political environment led to negative work outcomes, including poor work quality and lower productivity. To resolve and avoid these negative effects, leaders can make efforts to bridge gaps and foster cooperation between employee groups in the workplace.
Know thyself: Listen to your employees to better understand their backgrounds, interests, and values — especially across different cultural and geographical groups. Leaders can accomplish this through roundtable discussions, anonymous surveys, and other formats that encourage open communication and feedback from employees. If leaders better understand their teams and organizations, they will be better able to address common employee concerns. For example, after software company Basecamp reportedly banned discussions about social and political issues, some 30% of their employees resigned, an outcome that may have been avoided if leadership had a clearer understanding of what their employees needed or wanted.
Adopt a consistent stance: Explicitly outline your company’s philosophy regarding engagement on social issues, and ensure that it is consistent with previously established company policies, values, and purpose. Clear and stable expectations can not only reduce confusion and inappropriate behavior, they also can prevent disappointment by employees who feel the company should be doing more — or less — on social issues or who feel that policies are being inconsistently applied. For example, Starbucks reportedly faced criticism in 2020 when employees noted that Pride clothing was permitted workplace attire while Black Lives Matter clothing was banned. Ultimately, the company reversed the ban and adopted a consistent policy.
Create common ground: Make intergroup contact a core organizational value by building shared identities around apolitical interests. Corporate volunteering programs, which can build a sense of unity around a common social interest, are one powerful lever to create meaningful interactions. For example, the American Red Cross Los Angeles Region created a program to bring together members of different faiths — including Baha’i, Muslim, Christian, and Buddhist — to discuss the shared goal of increasing diversity in blood donations and organizing community blood drives.
Foster healthy engagement: Create clear rules and norms for open discussions that encourage honest and respectful communication — and even disagreement — between employees. Leaders can contribute to productive communication by creating open forums for cross-group engagement, keeping a watchful eye for misinformation, and encouraging civil and inclusive behavior. For example, when Cisco created staff forums to discuss difficult social issues, it also implemented a comment “color spectrum” to provide guidance on how employees can keep conversations respectful.
Engage the hidden majority: Ensure that people with moderate or unexpressed views feel comfortable within the organization. A 2018 study placed 67% of Americans in the “Exhausted Majority,” who say they feel fatigued by politics and feel forgotten in current debates. These employees may feel unwelcome in a highly politicized environment. For example, Starbucks faced criticism in 2015 after encouraging customers to discuss racial issues with employees, many of whom felt uncomfortable having such discussions at work but may have felt unable to refuse. As then-CEO Howard Schultz later commented, “These discussions needed to be had, but not in the way we had them.” Leaders can create a safe and respectful environment in which these individuals do not feel pressured to adopt a public or artificial stance.
Influence your ecosystem.
CEOs can have a degree of direct influence over the behavior of customers, suppliers, and other stakeholders within their external business ecosystem. Through these relationships, leaders can broaden their influence and impact, especially on issues of common interest. A strong ecosystem can amplify the expression and realization of a company’s purpose and afford expanded possibilities to address the context of polarization.
Communicate a clear purpose: A company’s purpose is the bridge between its internal aspirations and capabilities and its external impact, including its ability to address polarization. However, relying mainly on media soundbites or social media posts to communicate purpose can backfire; people are more likely to misunderstand ambiguously brief or ill-defined statements. Fortunately, leaders can easily engage in richer interactions with a company’s immediate stakeholders. When engaging with customers and external stakeholders, leaders should also ensure that they use terminology that is simple and easy to understand. For example, Ben & Jerry’s includes clear definitions of the issues they support on their website, which helps prevent confusion or misinterpretation.
Ensure respectful interactions: Fighting misinformation is not enough to reduce polarization if the tone of public communication is hostile. More in Common is an organization run by one of us (Mathieu) that develops initiatives to address fracturing within society. Its research suggests that 70% of Germans and 86% of French people are concerned about increasingly hateful public rhetoric.
Business leaders can influence how stakeholders interact — at least on company-run platforms — and can reduce antagonism by preventing the use of toxic or polarizing language. Twitter recently developed a feature that detects and flags “mean” messages before they are sent. During tests, these flags reportedly prompted 34% of people to change or delete their messages and to write 11% fewer offensive messages going forward.
Develop like-minded coalitions: Companies are increasingly aligning around issues like workplace behavior norms, DE&I commitments, and climate change efforts. By working together, firms not only magnify their influence and impact, but they can also exchange and leverage new skills and tactics to combat rising polarization. For example, the News Media Alliance, a bipartisan alliance of news media organizations, collaborates to make policy recommendations and advocate for a free and independent press.
Invest in new solutions: Leaders can combat polarization by investing in new platforms, tools, or concepts that directly address the context of rising polarization, both within and beyond the corporation. These solutions may include techniques for increasing effective collaboration between groups or for identifying and highlighting common traits. For example, companies can contribute to organizations that support deliberation across different groups to help reduce polarization. One such organization is America In One Room, a Stanford-based group that facilitates political debate across a diverse and representative sample of the American population.
Inspire broader impact.
The public’s rising trust in business — and declining trust in public institutions — means that CEOs can use their public standing to facilitate broader social change. However, individual leaders should maximize their credibility and influence by focusing on a few specific areas of interest and expertise that are consistent with their own companies’ beliefs and actions and are supported by others in their ecosystems. Furthermore, leaders will have more ability to shape emerging issues than those that are already highly polarized. Conversely, diving reactively into well-developed controversies — especially where they have not put their own house in order — can be risky and damaging.
Promote fact-based discourse: Companies should support their own communications with independently verified facts, while promoting the cause of independent, fact-based journalism. These actions can help to prevent the spread of misinformation among employees and within society more broadly. Furthermore, companies can avoid doing business with known purveyors of misinformation. For example, multiple companies reportedly pulled their advertising from Facebook in 2020 for its perceived delays in halting the spread of misinformation on its platform.
Catalyze inclusive communities: Leaders can reduce antagonism and increase intergroup understanding by taking actions such as investing in inclusive marketing techniques or creating public forums and events for cross-group interactions. Large majorities of people in Western democracies say they are exhausted by the division in society. CEOs could tap into this desire for unity by promoting intergroup contact in public communications and actions. This is what Danish broadcaster TV2 did by making the promotion of social cohesion a major part of its public image.
Build international bridges: Business has become increasingly global, and many companies have economic relationships with customers, suppliers, and investors across international borders. Leaders can use their international footprints to connect diverse regions and grow their stakeholder communities to encompass a broader range of perspectives. For example, Microsoft involves corporate volunteers in its African technology education program, providing a shared experience for individuals from different countries and further developing local relationships. This interaction across borders is a potentially powerful lever against a newly resurgent axis of polarization: geopolitical division and nationalism.
Rising polarization is unlikely to disappear anytime soon, and it can have severe ramifications for businesses, whether they take a public stance or not. However, by taking a selective and strategic approach, CEOs can reduce the harm of polarization first within their own companies, and then within their broader communities by focusing on issues and situations where they have self-interest, credibility, and influence.