In 2022, Drs. Nour Kteily and Eli J. Finkel, two Kellogg School of Management professors from Northwestern University, published “Leadership in a Politically Charged Age” (Harvard Business Review, July-August 2022 edition). Following the horrific large-scale attacks launched by the Gaza-based terrorist group Hamas against Israel on October 7, 2023, Canadian physician-leaders are currently being presented with multiple related highly politically-charged debates.
Drs. Kteily and Finkel’s publication that I summarize and quote from below is more relevant to Canadian physician-leaders today than ever. A key underlying principle that they explain is that trying to ban political speech is both draconian and counterproductive for many reasons. However, their framework does need to be adapted for context; their example of internal differences regarding equitable hiring practices is different from differences today regarding the Israel-Hamas war and the larger Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The Relevant Scientific Concepts
These concepts apply to people on both sides of a conflict and to us leaders ourselves!
Motivated Reasoning—human tendency to deploy facts selectively, not dispassionately, but in defense of our worldview or group interest
Naive Realism—human tendency to attend and interpret the same evidence about contentious issues differently and then experience their perceptions as singular truths. Naive realism underlies the bewilderment, frustration, and anger that people often feel when others perceive things differently
The Resulting Problem
“Productive discourse is possible only when people perceive the same reality”
The Two-Part Framework
Prevention strategies—“develop norms and procedures for navigating political conflict at work before a crisis emerges”
Teach key concepts to everyone (during onboarding if possible)
The idea that their political convictions may distort their own thinking as well as the thinking of those on the opposite side of the issue
“To approach sensitive issues with curiosity and in a spirit of generosity”
“Hate speech and discrimination are off-limits”
The strategy of “self-distancing”—thinking about a political conflict from the perspective of a neutral third party who wants the best for all involved
Where relevant to the context
Focus people on a common organizationally-prioritized chosen metric related to the conflict
Channel disagreement productively.
Treatment Strategies—a process for addressing toxic political conflicts
Set The Stage
Explain the above key concepts
Remind everyone that they’re all on the same team even if they disagree
Vilifying colleagues for their opinions is unacceptable
Help the partisans get a clear understanding of the other side’s perspective
No interrupting or discussion
Consider a Problem-Solving Process
Examples include interest-based bargaining, a search for win-win solutions, or “adversarial collaboration” allowing people with conflicting perspectives to jointly design and launch a project that will adjudicate and reconcile their views. If unsuccessful, participants may choose to “agree to disagree.”
An alternative suggestion (from David Snowden) for building trust among partisans is to form small teams (two from each side) and assign the team an important task unrelated to the conflict. This technique allows the partisans to work together and discuss the conflict with each other, later, on their own terms, and when they are ready.
My own first principle for leaders dealing with the 100+ year old Arab-Israeli conflict is to employ a trauma-informed approach, recognizing that both peoples, Jews and Palestinians, are dealing with severe long-term unresolved and ongoing trauma, and this trauma has been inflicted on both peoples by other nations as well as each other. My personal hypothesis is that truth and reconciliation approaches are most likely to succeed only if evidence is shared on how other nations set-up the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and collectively hurt both peoples. In this way, some of the blame for the death and destruction on both sides can be appropriately shifted away from the two peoples and hopefully be replaced by some increased sense of common humanity.
Good luck to all physician-leaders. Let me know if I can help!
Dr. Shayne Taback is a pediatric subspecialist, PGME CIP Director, and Executive Coach / Agency Director for physicians across the continuum from new leaders to Department Heads and C-Suite Chief Medical Officers. Our coaches' specialties include developing new teams, changing organizational culture, navigating complexity, and physician wellness. To learn more about Shayne and our other coaches, please click here. Or to contact Shayne, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or click here. To receive curated blog posts, please sign up to our newsletter below.