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A healthy regard for social pressure

Question: As the Senate’s “Gang of Six” struggle to come to agreement on a bipartisan budget plan, they are under intense social pressure from their caucus colleagues to abandon the effort and stick with the party line. In a clubby place like the Senate, social ostracism can be a real concern. From your experience, what role does social pressure on leaders play in their decision-making and how should leaders deal with it?

My talented colleague Kelly Hannum, whose global research has focused on bridging differences among people, likes to tell a story about racial reconciliation in post-apartheid South Africa. During a forum there, a black South African expressed deep unhappiness with new efforts being made to build relationships across races. This individual had endured significant injustices perpetrated by some whites in his home country and didn’t want to start over. From his perspective, there was no reason to trust or work collaboratively across racial lines. A facilitator at the forum listened sympathetically, acknowledged the validity of what he was saying and then asked: “Can you have the South Africa you want without working together?” Even in the midst of his anger, this individual had to admit, no, it wasn’t possible. And a positive conversation about how to build a new South Africa emerged from there.

Leaders at high levels in any organization face similar challenges every day. Different people have different perspectives and want different things. Inevitably, their expectations are not aligned. Just like the South African who initially resented being told to set aside the past, it is very easy for women and men to become dissatisfied with and feel betrayed by their leaders. Effective leaders acknowledge this by listening respectfully to divergent views and cultivating a healthy regard for social pressure. After all, doing this results in broader understanding and brings good ideas into clearer focus.

But leaders also need to push back. As Kelly Hannum and I have found, this dance is at the core of good leadership. By collaborating and communicating well, we can defuse the more explosive elements of social pressure, including stereotyping, herd-thinking and paralysis. Indeed, it’s those very skills of reaching out, listening and working across boundaries that have made it possible for our best U.S. presidents and congressional leaders to get things done.

In the end, though, taking social pressure into account without being unnecessarily swayed by it ultimately comes down to our own sense of self-awareness, authenticity and courage. Are we certain of our values? Do we fully understand our mission? Are we aware of our weak points? Often we find ourselves in leadership positions without having fully investigated our responses to those questions. When that happens, the door opens for social pressure to skew our thinking. The surest way for leaders to prepare for tests of their character and competence is to know those answers in advance.

View all panel responses to the discussion Under pressure?

John Ryan  | Apr 27, 2011 4:21 PM

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