By Leo Bottary & Craig Weber

Trading photos of our young grandchildren stimulated a sobering conversation about the world’s divisive state and what it will be like for these kids when they grow up. We spoke of it as the other pandemic — one that has been spreading for decades, moving from the global and national political stages to friends and families, and more recently, to CEO Peer groups and organizational work teams. We’ve concluded that while no one appears to be immune, each of us can play a part in ameliorating the spread.

The divisiveness has reached a boiling point. We’ve all heard stories of families who go so far as to establish ground rules for holiday gatherings about what they can and can’t talk about to avoid permanently damaging relationships. But this discord isn’t just affecting family barbecues and Thanksgiving dinners. Business leaders and their teams are also struggling with how to engage one another on controversial issues and cope with substantial differences of opinion in a healthier, more constructive way. And, perhaps no surprise, it has also infected CEO peer groups with which we both work in ways we find both unnerving and sad.

We shared stories about two such groups who saw their performance debilitated by divisiveness in two very different ways:

1) Caution: To avoid letting differing political and social views damage relationships and derail meetings, one group saw its CEO members become over-protective of their traditionally respectful, friendly environment by walking on eggshells, being overly polite, avoiding controversial topics and disagreements, and challenging each other less, all to keep the peace. Their need to maintain cordial relationships overwhelmed their candor — and the value of their group experience suffered.

2) Conflict: Another group responded very differently. When a member shared a partisan political perspective, a vicious, heated argument broke out, and soon several members were drawn into the conflict on both sides of the debate. Tensions ran high, relationships were hurt, and trust in the group was damaged. One member stormed off, declaring he was leaving the group. Here, passion trumped compassion. In this instance, some members’ need to be “right” and to sell their political perspective overwhelmed their curiosity and humility — and the value of their group experience suffered.

Slowing Down the Spread

So how do we do a better job of striking this balance of maintaining warm, cordial relationships but not letting that get in the way of direct, honest, and open dialogue? One way is to increase the group’s psychological safety — the ability to speak openly without fear of negative consequences. While this safety is essential to any high performing group or team, it can’t be mandated, coerced, or legislated. You have to build it.

So how do you build it? If psychological safety is the noun, conversational capacity is the verb. Conversational capacity refers to an individual or a group’s ability to have open, balanced, learning-focused dialogue about difficult subjects, in challenging circumstances, and across tough boundaries. It’s the ability to engage with one another in a “sweet spot” where candor, courage, and passion is balanced with curiosity, humility, and compassion. A group with the ability to work in this sweet spot under pressure can put their most divisive issues on the table and constructively engage them. A group that lacks this ability will often see its performance derailed by a minor difference of opinion.

So a group that has the discipline to converse in a constructive, balanced, learning-focused way enjoys a far higher degree of psychological safety. It’s far less risky to raise a challenging issue or provide sharp feedback; after all, when you’re confident you and the group have the capacity to handle it well.

But take note; psychological safety, and the conversational capacity that it depends on, require constant attention and practice. Much like our bodies, they must exercise it regularly to maintain peak condition. The moment a group starts to take this capacity for granted is the moment it begins to atrophy.

Getting to a Diagnosis

Here are some questions for you, your peer group, or your team to consider and explore:

1. What is the “Why” for your group or team?

2. Under what circumstances do you see the group become less candid to maintain the peace at the expense of your “why”?

3. Under what circumstances do you see the group become less curious and begin to butt- heads and quarrel at the expense of your “why”?

4. On a scale of 1–10, how would you rate the group’s overall psychological safety?

5. On a scale of 1–10, how well do you personally leverage that psychological safety to benefit yourself and others?

The Vaccine

The answers to these questions will help you increase your conversational capacity. Doing so will help you put ANY issue on the table — no matter how divisive or contrarian — and be confident that your group or team will address it in a constructive, balanced, learning-focused way. The power of we begins with you. By doing your part to stop the spread, you’ll make it a better world for our grandchildren and your own. And you don’t even have to wear a mask.

Founder, Managing Partner of Peernovation, LLC