Omaha’s Business Ethics Alliance yesterday hosted one of their excellent, regular interactive ethics panel discussions. We were invited to join panelists and local business professionals for a thought-provoking discussion on business ethics issues in the news today. The Business Ethics Alliance wanted us to consider questions such as whether businesses should advocate for political causes? Do Super PACs cross the line? What impact does advocacy, at the executive, employee or organizational level, have on the organization, our customers and our community? Is political discourse appropriate for the workplace?

Two particular features of our discussion caught my attention. The first was fear. One of the panelists noted our burgeoning inability to cope with personal conflict, but this insight was not developed further as the audience resorted instead to the comforting platitudes that call for respectful intercourse. It is appropriate, of course, that we respect others whose views we disagree with, but in the instance used in yesterday’s discussion, it was a disingenuous euphemism for permission to decline to engage with each other’s differing political views in favor of an atmosphere of tolerance. Respect here is a means of conflict avoidance, not a characteristic of genuine engagement.

This is worsened by a corporate psychology that is conformist and controlling. Managers despair of circumstances that they cannot control and direct, hence the plethora of regulations, HR policies and employee behavior edicts. The possibility of employees engaging in difficult discussion should not be managed as if adult employees are kindergarteners ordered to “play nicely.” Managers typically ask for enthusiasm all the while cultivating an environment repressing individuality. Organizations shouldn’t be managed that way if they value innovation, teamwork, healthy cultural engagement, accountability, ethical behavior and dedication. Yet so many businesses run themselves according to the 20th century mechanistic models of management including, it seems, some represented at yesterday’s discussion.

The second feature of yesterday’s dialogue to catch my ear was the ability of people to be themselves at work. In some respects, that is impossible, because all of us bring different aspects of ourselves to different environmental and social circumstances (see, for example, our discussion at Casey Logan’s Arthaus12 event here). One business leader indicated pride that his employees struggled to identify his political leanings, and another suggested that such invisibility of opinion was important, so that the influences of power and hierarchy were not abused. Conversely, another leader said his team would easily know his political leanings and his organization had a more open culture capable of embracing difference.  I fully support that second scenario. If businesses inflexibly require employees to engage only in subjects or topics that are insipid, inoffensive and purely related to work, then the outcome inevitably is minimal breakthrough success for that business, a bland organizational culture and impossible personal growth and fulfillment for the employee.

Conversation is the means by which we may move through stages of lack of understanding, vulnerability, and confusion to arrive at mutual appreciation and community. The intent is not to arrive at agreement, but at a place where we can share ourselves fully as members of a team, group or even society without fearing different beliefs and political perspectives in others. Asserting silence promotes barriers and entrenched separation at a personal and a team level.

Moreover, as reflected upon elsewhere in this website (such as here and here), a moratorium on conversation around broad, diverse and even difficult subjects serves to diminish our compassion, empathy and our ability to make ethical choices. It is odd, then, that in our discussion yesterday so many business leaders prefer the silence of themselves and their employees around difficult issues, including politics.

One or two audience members lauded the capacity of conversation for business success, organizational harmony and ethical choices. They recognize that conversation affords the possibility of our best futures.