As 2020 draws to a close, many leaders find themselves facing a challenge they are not used to addressing: team members who get sidetracked by intense disagreements about social and political matters having little or nothing to do with the team’s goals and objectives. What is the accountable leader’s response to this situation?
Social and political issues can cause serious divisions within the organization if leaders are not careful. Team members can start making assumptions about each other: He probably supports XYZ policy — I know all I need to know about him. That’s toxic.
That kind of bias and lack of respect has any number of equally toxic parallels: She doesn’t come from the ‘right’ school — I know all I need to know about her. Or: He comes from a different department than I do — I know all I need to know about him. When people take action on such beliefs, the actions are both unproductive and disrespectful.
How does a leader handle these kinds of divisions?
Here is my answer. In an accountable organization, people can disagree about a lot of things: politics, personnel moves, strategic decisions, the color the walls should be painted in the break room — you name it. But there are some things that everyone in the organization, without exception, has to agree on. We call these non-negotiable points of agreements Values, because they are so valuable and so important to the organization and to each individual within it that, if one of them ever goes missing or is overlooked, we drop everything and figure out how to get it back.
Accountable leaders know that the values of the organization must always connect to the actions and decisions of each and every team member. They also know that Respect has to be one of those values. If team members are not willing to treat each other with respect — whether that is over a political disagreement, a disagreement about how to redecorate the breakroom, or anything in between — then the accountable leader has to call time-out and make sure the value of Respect is restored. If for some reason there is someone on staff who chooses not to live that value at work, regardless of how productive they are, that person has to be transitioned into finding some other opportunity elsewhere. It is as simple as that.
These are trying times, divisive times that we are now living through in the United States — perhaps as divisive as any in American history. It is understandable that some team members will feel strongly about certain issues, including political and social issues. That is not something that accountable leaders can change. What they can and must do, however, is uphold the organization’s real-time commitment to live its stated values daily, by both personal example and by making decisions that align with those values, even when they are difficult. So, if you haven’t already done so, identify the organization’s core values, and make sure Respect is one of them. Then, defend those values whenever and wherever necessary. Finally, accept that anyone who can’t agree to those values — by making sure they are evident in every decision and every interaction — does not belong in your organization.