Business Must Play A Greater Role In Reducing Polarization

By Bob Feldman

Few things are more troubling to our society than the polarization gripping our country. It impacts our ability to deal with the most pressing issues of the day, ranging from climate change to energy production and consumption, from public health to economic growth.  Equally importantly, it impacts our ability to have civil conversations with one another, friends, family and colleagues.

No one is happy about this, but what can we do?

There are many reasons we’re in this mess and there are many potential pathways to help us get out of it. None are easy.  But what is the role of business? Can business – should business – play a proactive role in reducing polarization and improving civil discourse?

Interestingly, the acceleration of polarization has paralleled the acceleration of stakeholder capitalism.  Is there a cause-and-effect here? I doubt it but there is a relationship. And broader recognition by the world’s leading CEOs of the role they need to play in our society has come at a fortuitous time. Or, as Salesforce CEO Mark Benioff wrote in Alan Murray’s new book, Tomorrow’s Capitalist, today’s successful business leaders must practice a capitalism “that is more equal, fair and sustainable, where profit and purpose go hand-in-hand and business can be the greatest platform for change.”

The intersection between stakeholder capitalism and tackling polarization is often crystal clear. Consider the acceleration of employee activism.  When a company’s employees protest a company’s behavior on issues ranging from voting rights, gun safety, immigration, LGBTQ rights, and more, they are forcing a company to engage in social issues of the day. Whether or not the company’s engagement goes public, or stays within the four walls of the company, the fact remains: corporate America is engaging.

And in so doing, it can play a constructive role in educating both sides of many issues and help to turn down the temperature on the debates.

I founded the Dialogue Project in 2020 after doing considerable research into this matter.  CEOs want and need our society to be less hostile and more productive.  Our citizens don’t enjoy the tribalism of today’s politics.

The Dialogue Project’s purpose is to educate and inspire business leaders to do as much as they can to help meet these challenges of polarization and discourse.

As you can see on this website, we’ve held important conferences, such The Risks & Rewards of Stakeholder Capitalism, which featured leaders from MasterCard and Deloitte.  We held a session, The Calculus of Engagement, featuring Southwest Airlines, Allstate and new research from the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College.  And just this fall, we conducted a remarkable crisis simulation exercise delving into how a public health crisis can morph into a highly political crisis and the challenges that presents to corporate America. Our simulation featured leading current and former senior executives from Procter & Gamble, United Airlines, Gilead Sciences, Boeing, World Health Organization and the CDC.

What were the key insights from all this activity-to-date?

  • Corporate leaders must invest time to really understand their own company’s values.
  • Be sure those values are understood and respected by all employees; violations must have consequences.
  • Consider what role those values play in determining if, when and how you engage on social issues.
  • Understand that regardless of what public posture you may choose to take, employee activism is stronger than ever and communication by the CEO and other leaders to all employees is often essential on a range of issues.

According to the Edelman Trust Barometer, business is now America’s most trusted institution.  If so, corporate leaders must leverage that trust to help their employees (aka our citizens) learn how to listen and respect varying viewpoints, much as they do in the day-to-day operations of business.

None of this is easy, but if a company‘s values are understood and its actions reflect its values, even those who disagree will offer respect. For those leaders who try to have it both ways, and not be grounded by a core set of values, their actions will have negative consequences.


Bob Feldman is the Founder of the Dialogue Project.