3 Strategies for Leading in Times of Political Polarization

By Brett Beasley

"Political sectarianism" hurts us all. Here’s how leaders can reignite connection, collaboration, and commitment.

Political Sectarianism

“A common danger unites even the bitterest enemies,” wrote Aristotle. But more than two millennia later, Aristotle's idea is being put to the test by coronavirus. By the summer of 2020, 77% of Americans said their country had grown more divided since the beginning of the pandemic—a higher percentage than any of the 13 other nations surveyed.

This deep division is hard for leaders to ignore. Not only does it make us more wary of living near, dating, or marrying someone of the other political party, it also spills over into the workplace. It makes it more difficult for us to work with or for someone who does not vote the way we do. Our organizations begin to suffer from reduced collaboration, weakened connection, and less commitment overall to each other and to the work we share.

What, if anything, can leaders do to help us overcome these differences?

The answer begins with understanding what makes us so divided in the first place.

When We Put Political Identities Before Ideas

Democracies thrive on “free trade in ideas,” as Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes put it. And many of us would agree that “the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.”

Does that mean that political polarization is inevitable?

Research would suggest otherwise. Recently, scholars from eleven U.S. universities teamed up to understand what drives political polarization today. They found that political polarization is very different from the “free trade in ideas” that Holmes had in mind. They came to the surprising conclusion that “the severity of political conflict has grown increasingly divorced from the magnitude of policy disagreement.”

In other words, it’s not our ideas that divide us. It is our identities.

Increasingly, our political party functions as our “tribe” or “sect.” This "mega-identity" can "grow so powerful that it changes other identities." If we allow it, this political affiliation can do our thinking for us. Our party can choose our principles for us instead of our principles determining which political party we choose. For example, a recent study found that Republicans were willing to shift their ideas toward a more liberal policy (increasing the minimum wage, for example) if they believed President Trump supported it.

There’s reason to think that partisanship affects the principles of both Republicans and Democrats in comparable ways. In one experiment, for example, liberals and conservatives viewed identical footage of a political demonstration. The researchers told some liberals that the demonstration was for a conservative cause. These liberals said the demonstration appeared more violent than another group of liberals who believed the demonstration was for a liberal cause. And conservatives showed the reverse pattern.

Such “political sectarianism” also clouds our perceptions of each other so that we see in stereotypes: "Republicans estimate that 32% of Democrats are LGBT when in reality it is 6%; Democrats estimate that 38% of Republicans earn over $250,000 per year when in reality it is 2%," the researchers report.

Fortunately, the solution does not lie in giving up on the causes and commitments we care about. Instead, we need leaders who have the courage to build bridges, disagree better, and avoid self-righteousness.

Put it in Practice

Here are three strategies for leading in the face of political sectarianism.

Create new forms of belonging.

One of the most powerful messages a leader can send is the message, “You belong here.” In our organizations, we have the opportunity to foster a "we're all in this together" attitude and then back it up with concrete actions. By insisting on forging relationships, affiliations, and positive connections with people whose views differ from our own, we attack political sectarianism at its root.

The best leaders create a shared organizational culture that makes room for difference but also is able to transcend difference and allow people to be included and to belong even when they disagree about important issues.

Foster constructive disagreement.

Research on political sectarianism suggests that disagreement—Holmes’s “free trade in ideas”—isn't the cause of political hostility. In fact, it can be part of the cure. But in order to disagree more effectively, we need to practice conversational receptiveness by expressing a genuine interest in other people and their views.

We can also trigger thoughtfulness on the part of other people by asking questions and inviting them to fully explain their views.

Model moral and intellectual humility.

The researchers write that one of the most important actions "Leaders of civic, religious, and media organizations” can take is to “reduce intellectual self-righteousness.” Leaders have the power to cause destruction by convincing their group members or organizations that they are “on the side of the angels.” Or, conversely, they can invite their followers to re-evaluate their behaviors and ideas. Usually, this begins with the leader’s own example—even with the simple sentence, “I don’t know.” As the poet Wislawa Szymborska once said, “I value that little phrase ‘I don’t know’ so highly. It’s small, but it flies on mighty wings.”

The good news is that it lies within our power to reduce political sectarianism. The task may not be as insurmountable as it seems. Leaders can, like Abraham Lincoln, call on their followers "to bind up the nation's wounds" with "malice toward none" and "charity for all," without ignoring the reality of ongoing disagreement and tension. In fact, research suggests that it’s not necessary for us to become friends in order to cooperate. We simply need leaders who consistently refuse the temptation of self-righteousness, who foster belonging, and who promote the radical idea that we can disagree without being disagreeable.

Related Content

Ethics in Investing: A Discussion with Kristen Bitterly Michell (ND '02)

Ethics in Investing: A Discussion with Kristen Bitterly Michell (ND '02)

Kristen Bitterly Michell (ND '02), the Managing Director and Head of Investing Solutions at Citi Global Wealth, sat down with us to discuss the industry. Kristen was a featured speaker of the 2024 Women’s Investing Summit (WIS) hosted by the Notre Dame Institute for Global Investing (NDIGI). She offers…

Rejuvenation at Work:  Leveraging Connections for Employee Engagement

Rejuvenation at Work: Leveraging Connections for Employee Engagement

Resolutions, diets, the latest exercise routines - we are inundated with “new year, new you” messages each January. This time of year also marks a bit of a reset at work - many of us return to the office after extra time with loved ones over the holidays.

As we consider our priorities and well-being,…