Government & Politics

Pulling Back From Polarization: How Business Leaders Can Step Up

Stanford GSB faculty and alumni discuss ways citizens, leaders, and organizations can begin to bridge the political gap. (Part 3)

October 19, 2022

| by Kevin Cool Dave Gilson
Illustration of a red megaphone on a blue background. The megaphone is tipping over, and a pair of eyes is peeking out from beneath it. Illustration by Álvaro Bernis

Illustrations by Álvaro Bernis

How can corporate leaders use their influence to divisiveness and promote collaboration? Neil Malhotra, Kristin Hansen, Alison Goldsworthy, and Jen Miles offer some ideas.


Rebuild Broken Trust

Neil Malhotra

Neil Malhotra is a professor of political economy at Stanford GSB.

You’ve found that one effect of media coverage of polarization is that it increases people’s belief that we’re polarized. I half-jokingly wonder if we’re making it worse.

Neil Malhotra: I think it’s possible. The story that my paper shows is that the media covered issue-based polarization when it actually wasn’t that high, and that potentially led to more affective polarization, which is now hard to reverse.

Pulling Back From Polarization

In this Stanford Business three-part article, researchers, policy experts, and politicians discuss ways to establish common ground, work together, and strengthen democracy.

So there’s less disagreement on the issues than people realize, but polarization prevents them from seeing the other side as having anything in common with them?

Malhotra: Yes. There’s a lot of research that shows that partisan stereotyping is very prevalent. For example, Democrats think most Republicans own guns. Republicans think that most Democrats own electric vehicles. The media contributed to this because I think they overplayed issue-based polarization, which then leads to misperceptions, which then leads to affective polarization.

We have social norms against discrimination based on race, gender, and sexual orientation, but you’ve noted that we have few norms about discriminating against people based on their politics. Why is that?

Malhotra: I think people don’t view politics as an immutable characteristic; they view it as a choice. The more we learn about moral psychology, we see that a lot of people’s political beliefs are baked in when they’re very young. You could always change your political beliefs but, in reality, that’s much easier said than done.

Just being more honest with the public could decrease a lot of polarization.
Neil Malhotra

And political beliefs correlate pretty strongly with demographic identities.

Malhotra: Of course — especially things like religion, education, rural identity. So when you discriminate against someone based on their political beliefs, you could be discriminating based on demographic factors that are beyond their control. It’s probably a better philosophy just to not discriminate against anybody.

In your class Leading with Values, how do you encourage discussions that bring in multiple viewpoints?

Illustration of two I voted pins. Álvaro Bernis

Malhotra: We do three things. One, we explain the difference between facts and values and how there are correct facts, but there are not correct values. Second, we teach about moral foundations theory, which is that a lot of the way we view the world ethically is a sense we have, and moral senses are based on intuitions. So you want to be empathetic to the idea that other people have different moral senses than yours. Just because someone disagrees with you, it doesn’t mean they’re immoral. Third, we do a lot of polling before we discuss the issues, because many people think they’re the only ones that hold a particular view. If they see 20% of people share their view, they’re much more likely to express it.

Polarization is driven by misguided beliefs about what other people believe, which makes it hard to convince people using facts and logic. How can we get past that?

Malhotra: I think corporate responsibility is a key to a lot of this — and elite responsibility generally. People don’t mind facts if the facts help make their lives better. No one inherently likes science; the reason science won is because it made people’s lives better. On the other hand, if people perceive science as harming their lives or not improving them, then they’re not going to trust in facts; they’re not going to trust an expert. So when scientists and doctors say, “Oh yeah, you can take these opioids. It’s no big deal,” why is it shocking then that five years later, people are not going to take this vaccine you’re telling them to take? You’ve got to be socially responsible because if you solely care about profits, it’s going to lead to this degradation of trust in experts. People really want to trust elites to look out for them and to make the right decisions. I think just being more honest with the public could decrease a lot of polarization.


Reduce the Demand for Divisiveness

Alison Goldsworthy and  Alison Goldsworthy

Kristin Hansen, MBA ’98, is a lecturer in management at Stanford GSB and the executive director of the Civic Health Project. Alison Goldsworthy, MS ’17, is the president of Accord and the author of Poles Apart.

What is polarization preventing us from accomplishing?

Kristin Hansen: We’re becoming increasingly incapable of enacting policy or legislation that reflects the will of even substantial majorities of Americans. And as a consequence of that, we’re seeing more decision-making on really difficult issues, especially cultural issues, devolving back to the states. It’s almost like we’ve given up — it’s going to be too hard to get 330 million people to agree on anything, so let’s devolve a lot of these hard problems to the states. But unfortunately, that doesn’t solve it, because polarization, dysfunction, gridlock, and hostility show up in workplace settings, and also at the state level, the regional level, the community level. It’s bleeding down into the smallest nooks and crannies of our lives.

Alison Goldsworthy: Some polarization is a really healthy and normal thing. It’s a very natural, evolved process for us to think in groupish ways. Nor does politics function well with a boring amorphous blob in the middle; voter choice and distinction between parties matter. But polarization becomes really toxic when politics can’t function or there are significant spillover effects into other areas of life.

You’re not going to be able to effectively run your business in a very polarized society.
Alison Goldsworthy

In developed democracies, people often take our stable system, and the rules that protect it, for granted. They shouldn’t. When societies become polarized, change can be swift and often negative, yet we see very few appearances of polarization on companies’ risk registers. That’s despite polarization potentially making it far harder to effectively run a business — and often pushing up the costs of doing so.

Hansen: A framework that we’ve used with business audiences is talking about polarization as a supply and demand problem. You have this unhealthy supply and demand loop. We’ve got to shift demand preferences if we are the consumers and the buyers of polarization, if you will. That isn’t easy; that’s a long game to create a healthier supply and demand loop.

How can business leaders help create an environment where dialogue or collaboration across political boundaries is possible?

Goldsworthy: At the leadership level, they can model depolarizing behavior themselves. That can involve carefully building teams and sharing power. Working to overcome our natural tendency to favor people like us. It also means being open to changing your mind and admitting you got it wrong. Very often leaders feel they have to have an answer, forcing hastily taken positions that are hard to row back. They’d be much better waiting or admitting they don’t know. And when others in their team do this, they should celebrate it.

Illustration of a stack of books with an apple on top

Another way is building teams that are from diverse backgrounds. When I say background, I don’t just mean the things that you can see; it goes beyond that and brings in different experiences and viewpoints. These can inculcate you against the effects of polarization and there is growing evidence they are good for the bottom line, too.

Hansen: I increasingly talk about a four-lane strategy for social cohesion. The first lane is taking a more expansive view of how you are thinking about diversity and inclusion within the walls of your workplace, or your company, or organization, so that ideological and viewpoint diversity are given more consideration.

The second lane is how you show up in your community. The third lane is storytelling: Can you tell more cohesive stories that are going to foster recognition of one another’s humanity? And then the fourth lane is how you are allocating your dollars. That’s everything from advertising dollars to corporate political spending and charitable spending. Can you spend them in ways that foster social cohesion?

Is it possible to work for depolarization without sacrificing your values?

Goldsworthy: I think you have to work out which values to prioritize — and the identity that relates to them. I was deputy chair of the Lib Dems in the UK. Being a hugely partisan creature had benefits, but in this context, limitations too. In the end, I established my role was in protecting the rules of the game of a democracy — and if you don’t have enough people and organizations doing that, everything else can fall apart very quickly.

We’ve got to shift demand preferences if we are the consumers and the buyers of polarization.
Kristin Hansen

Hansen: That question runs through my mind at least once a day, if not multiple times a day. It doesn’t take that many cycles of reflection to come back to, well, really what choice do we have? Whichever side of the equation you’re on, the realization a lot of people come to is: “Oh, more than 70 million Americans disagree with me. What do I do with that?” For most of us who work on bridge-building, somewhere in those values is the idea that it’s anathema to think that we can or should hate millions of our fellow Americans.


Jen Miles

Jen Miles, MBA ’89, stepped down as mayor of Kingman, Arizona, in August. She had served on the city council for nearly a decade.

Based on your experience, how does partisanship play out at the local level?

As city elected officials representing the interests of all our citizens, there are times when we consider and even move forward on measures that are not favored by the “party.” On those occasions, there is too often immense pressure/pushback put on local elected officials to influence their votes and the outcome.

It is all the more important that good people who understand the importance of statesmanlike conduct aspire to and assume public service.
Jen Miles

If their efforts fail, partisan legislators will often publicly deride the city and the locally elected officials. Worse yet, a few may even be unsupportive of later legislative actions that they know would benefit that city to register their discontent/anger at a decision that went against the party position.

Having said that, it is all the more important that good people who understand the importance of statesmanlike conduct aspire to and assume public service. Our democracy depends on elected officials who are empathetic to the needs of the many, are able to discern and speak truth, and have the leadership qualities that attract followers and influence outcomes.


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