Opinion
Peninah Thomson OBE and Clare Laurent 2 Mar 2017 10:00am

Initiating debate in a world led by "strong men"

What future is there for constructive debate in a polarised world led by overbearing “strong men”? Peninah Thomson OBE and Clare Laurent suggest it’s time to listen and engage

During the tumultuous year of 2016, we watched two of the world’s oldest democracies apparently split before our eyes. Months after the referendum on its EU membership, the UK is still divided into Brexiteers and Remainers, elites and the people, cities against the rest of the country, and neighbour against neighbour. In the US, pro- and anti-Trump sentiments since the inauguration remain strong and people of different opinions no longer seem able to rub along or engage in respectful debate. In October, the New York Times carried a headline entreating readers to “Heal the Painful Divide in Our Country”. They could have been talking equally about the UK. In neither nation is there much sign of that healing starting.

Back in 2014, Martin Wolf wrote in the FT: “If elites continue to fail, we will go on watching the rise of angry populists. The elites need to do better. If they do not, rage may overtake us.” When we cited his words in our 2015 book, The Rise of the Female Executive, we could not have predicted their prescience. Rage is apparent in both countries. The need for a reorganisation of civil society, what in our book we called the “big project”, feels all the more urgent as we watch the temperature of national debates increase and institutions struggle to adapt to events.

At The Mentoring Foundation our primary aim, since our work began in 2003, has been to straddle difference, bringing together through mentoring men and women who otherwise would be unlikely to meet so that through mentoring relationships and interaction change is facilitated.

The broader aim is to enable more women to access boards and senior management, increasing the diversity of those holding power in UK corporations with the expectation that corporations better able to reflect the diversity of customers are likely to function better in the long term. This work seems uncontentious when compared with more recent international events. Nonetheless, our position enables us to observe how opinions and preconceptions can be deeply entrenched, risking becoming obstructive rather than constructive. Our interest in current events springs from our work in reconciling different “world views” in order to foster change.

Splitting headaches

The thinking on the roles of men and women in work and society has long been dogged by binary views. Gender has become a way of being with views deeply embedded in our culture. We define ourselves through our difference. Women and men have been deemed to be on opposite ends of a continuum of gender-ascribed characteristics. Male traits are considered suitable for the workplace and feminine characteristics suitable for caring, home-based roles. Hierarchy is inherent in the continuum, with male traits dominant and associated with leadership whether in the family, corporate or societal level. Men are seen as “assertive” and “aggressive”, while women are “nurturing” and “consensus-led”.

A similar phenomenon is evident in politics, with commentators observing that we are entering an era of nationalist “strong men”. One feature of “strong men” leaders is a black and white portrayal of the world, split into friendly and hostile forces. People are portrayed as “with us or against us”, good or bad. Construing the world in such binary terms offers simple and appealing scapegoats and solutions for complex issues.

Splitting the world into polarised and mutually hostile camps is not the exclusive domain of “strong men”. It was evident in the debates on Brexit and Trump and is a practice now embedded in our culture. Think back to the reaction to Stuart Rose, then leading the Remain campaign, when he observed that not all the consequences of Brexit would immediately be negative. Holding such a nuanced, considered view was not acceptable.

A psychoanalytic lens helps shed light on the dangers of this phenomenon and how to resolve it. “Splitting” is a psychoanalytic and cultural notion whereby people separate difficult or unpalatable elements of themselves and project them onto others, seeing them more safely as the bad in someone else rather than themselves. The process of splitting gives rise to stereotypes and the notion of “the other”, a character whose traits are projected onto a person or group, embodying all we see as bad and that is on the edge of our consciousness causing anxiety. When the anxiety is too great the other becomes demonised to the extent that no good can be seen in them. When taken to extremes, it sits at the heart of bullying, sexism and racism. In the current global context we can see how this has promoted hate between groups with different opinions.

Inside the echo-chamber

One of the primary aims of increasing diversity on boards is to reduce the phenomenon of “group think”, where like-minded people (mainly white, well-educated males) share and reinforce each other’s opinions, shutting out different perspectives that could be brought into the boardroom by people who are different from the dominant group.

In a similar phenomenon to group think, the splits we see today are deepened by new methods of communication. More able than ever to communicate, we create networks of like-minded people across social media. Instead of broadening our exposure, we talk to the like-minded, sharing stories and views and reinforcing our own positions against perceived opponents (the other), rather than seeking an understanding that incorporates the good and bad in the positions across both sides of the table.

Moving from black and white to full colour

Solutions involve a recognition that the other’s position exists but also understanding and tolerating good and bad on both sides. The literature invites us to occupy the transitional space between our and our opponent’s position, allowing it to become a place to tolerate difference, holding the tension between competing ideas and inviting us to be creative in the space created.

Where two sides in national debates are barely speaking, other than to lob insults at one other, this is easier said than done. The FT’s Gideon Rachman described the cult of the strong man as “middle-aged guys trying to sort things out”. We have noted the position attributed to women leaders in this arena and how they are described as “consensual” and “low-key” in their style, offering a counterpoint to the oppositional black and white of the strong men.

While this is a tempting picture for those seeking a response, we warn against it, prolonging as it does binary ideas of how men and women are. These views may not fit either with how leaders such as Angela Merkel and Theresa May see themselves or with how they act. It is also a solution that continues to rely on pitting people against each other based on the gulf of difference between them, rather than seeking to achieve a broader picture that incorporates the strengths and weaknesses on both sides, by occupying the space between them in which fresh insights can emerge.

Conversations across difference

The core purpose of The Mentoring Foundation is facilitating the creation of safe spaces for reflection and change through high quality mentoring relationships. Our mentors and mentees overcome preconceptions about each other based on gender, the position they hold or the industry they work in. In the space created by the freedom from preconceptions come ideas and insights based on experience of each other and their interaction in the space they create together, exposing their strengths and weaknesses and their different views and ideas.

The core features mentors and mentees identify in this process are the ability to listen and to feel heard and understood in an environment where neither party feels judged. In most cases, these interactions result in better, more nuanced understanding of the other person and themselves. Frequently, it also results in some kind of transformational action, such as feeling confident enough to seek and secure a job that they had not believed they were capable of or finding an understanding of the particular challenges women face at work. These are small incremental changes on the path towards better, more diverse organisations where a broader range of people and views co-exist.

Time for healing

Our work can be seen as a microcosm of the bigger task of “healing” that needs to take place across the world. We don’t have the ears of the world’s leaders. But we can, as part of the electorate, lead by example, committing to look outside our echo chambers, and seek a broader view.

We can acknowledge that experts might not be perfect and are as subjective as the rest of us, but have years of experience that could be of benefit to us and from which we can derive good learning. We can also acknowledge that many people had strong reasons for voting either for Brexit or Trump and that those reasons need to be heard and addressed. Likewise, many who voted for Clinton or to remain in the EU also have beliefs and wishes that need to be accommodated in the new order. At the same time, and perhaps most importantly, we can reject narratives that present us with convenient, black and white enemies who are in fact scapegoats for more complex problems.

We can debunk notions that immigrants are stealing jobs and cultures or that all Russians are enemies seeking military supremacy. Using conversations as a means of bringing about change for the better is a long game: and it is one that must now begin in earnest.

Peninah Thomson OBE is chief executive of The Mentoring Foundation and Clare Laurent is an associate. They are authors with Tom Lloyd of The Rise of the Female Executive


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