Rebuilding the Common

Albert Bourla, Chairman & CEO, Pfizer

Dr. Albert Bourla

Chairman & CEO, Pfizer

By almost every measure, America is becoming more polarized.  We often disagree not just about opinions, but about basic facts. And while researchers, political scientists, academics and others can debate the underlying cause, there is broad agreement that polarization by its very nature comes from the lack of the common.  This can mean a lack of common space, a lack of common purpose, a lack of common entertainment, a lack of common information sources – even a lack of common neighborhoods.

In this context businesses have a unique opportunity, incentive, and even responsibility to fight polarization. We can provide some of these “missing commons,” foster understanding between employees with differing beliefs, and unite people around a common purpose.  We can help bridge the gaps that divide us.

Common Spaces

Businesses are among the last remaining places where people of all races, faiths, political persuasions, and economic backgrounds not only converge, but work together toward a common goal. Pfizer, with approximately 30,000 employees in the United States, is a microcosm of the nation’s diversity. These employes collaborate in person, virtually, and when they travel. Had they not been working at Pfizer, many of them would likely have never met.

Exposure to people different than yourself reduces polarization, and we do not just let that exposure happen by accident. By deliberately and strategically fostering connections among employees during and after work hours, businesses can build bonds across ideological divides. At Pfizer we call this time spent together “celebrating joy,” and it is one of our strategic pillars – but it is a strategy that any large business can follow. Shared experiences of joy can create common ground and reduce polarization, and businesses should work to create them.

Something Common to Believe In

“Business” is one the few institutions that can inspire people to consider other points of view. According to the 2023 Edelman Trust Barometer, for example, trust in media and government is at an all-time low, while business is the only institution left that is seen as “competent and ethical.”  What’s more, among those who feel polarized, the employer is the only trusted institution.

This trust provides a huge opportunity. By being outspoken about and staying true to their purpose, businesses can give people with differing perspectives something common to believe in and strive toward. Pfizer’s production of potentially life-saving medicines and vaccines is our unifying force, and a common goal that all of our employes have. We continuously discuss this work and celebrate our successes. Shared goals, in the hands of a trusted institution, reduces polarization and promotes a sense of shared purpose.

A ‘Common Good’ Business Case for Reducing Polarization

I’ve so far focused on the impact that businesses can have on their own employees, but there are ways for us to reduce polarization outside the confines of our offices. Businesses can do that by identifying an underlying cause of polarization that affects their operations and consciously work to combat it. The cause could be economic, political, technological or something else – the important thing is building systems inside and outside a business’s particular industry, which both helps them and helps society.

In our current environment, businesses are uniquely positioned to reduce polarization. By using their diverse workforce, building trust, and actively combating its underlying causes, they can help create a more cohesive and understanding society. The challenge is significant, but so too is the opportunity. We must rise to the occasion and play our part in bridging the divides that threaten to engulf us.