2020 was filled with heightened emotion as we found ourselves grappling with a pandemic, a U.S. election, and perennial social issues. For many business leaders, that meant using their businesses as voices of change, but you aren’t the only voice within your organization. So, how can you provide space for views that may differ from your own?
It’s early June 2020, and I’m hopping on the phone with one of our company’s clients, a CEO. He’s writing his first book about the values of leadership and building a business with integrity. Within the first few seconds of the call, I can hear a heaviness in his voice. It’s been a pivotal week for the world as racial injustice reaches new heights; the moment to speak up is upon us. And he has spoken up. He’s spoken up beautifully, eloquently, and thoughtfully. He’s spoken up with truth, conviction, and credence. He’s also spoken up knowing that not everyone within his company feels the same way.
That in and of itself is creating a new tension for him. And he’s not alone.
The last year has been filled with heightened emotion as we’ve found ourselves amid a pandemic, a U.S. election, and many social issues that have gone on for far too long. Walking through the trenches of these various emotions are business leaders — individuals who are often the voice and face of many stories and opinions and trying to navigate the most sincere way to represent them all.
Many business leaders are currently standing in unfamiliar territory — wanting to use their businesses as voices of change in the world and recognizing that their voice isn’t the only one within the organization. Providing space within their business for views that may differ from their own is also a part of moving the needle toward the very change they’re seeking.
It’s not an easy road to walk, especially when our businesses are lived out in the public domain and our words are examined beneath a microscope. One misstep (even the most innocent one) could mean dire consequences in the world of public accountability now known as social media. This is part of the decision our leaders must now make: not just what to share, but how much of it to share.
The Importance of Values in Business
When our CEO client and I finally settled into the call, I asked him how he felt. He explained that his company just released a social media post supporting Black Lives Matter and that he knew some of his partners at the company, all of whom he respected, didn’t share that specific view. While he knew that everyone shared the core belief of ending racial injustice, he was concerned about the wording’s nuances that might leave room for unintended ambiguity. The words seemed to be well-received by the outside world, but he was already feeling discontent from within his organization — a feeling that wasn’t sitting well with him.
Our client’s business was built on the foundation that personal authenticity matters just as much as good profit margins. So when an important issue arose, he wanted to honor the issue from a very human perspective. However, we live in a politically charged climate, and the world is watching how he (and every other CEO) handles unrest. As a result, he found himself staring at the ceiling each night, not sleeping, just constantly wondering: How do we express our company values without being paralyzed by the “right way” to do it?
The reality is that people no longer engage with companies simply for their products or services. They engage with companies to belong to something — a large part of that belonging lies in shared values. People support businesses they believe in; therefore, leaders need to share what they believe in. They need to give consumers a look inside the work they do and the motivation behind it.
Every business has its own unique story, and it’s generally rooted in the founder’s humanity. Before there was a business with a name on the door, there was a person with a passion in their soul. All of us started somewhere, and that origin comes with its own set of beliefs and values. In a world full of reasons for us to feel divided, these values and stories enable us to remain connected.
Sharing Your Story Versus Your Opinion
The Oxford Dictionary defines opinion as “a view or judgment formed about something, not necessarily based on fact or knowledge.” We all have our viewpoints; it’s the nature of being human. The challenge with opinions is that they create lines in the sand. If we deem our opinion as “right,” then anything different becomes inherently “wrong.” There’s rarely a path to understanding or unity found in this direction.
A story, on the other hand, is an experience. It’s a series of events that’s shaped who a person is, articulating the evolution of something. While an opinion will share our views, a story will share why we have those views. And the why behind our values is where our humanity lies.
A week after my call with our client, he sent me a message letting me know that they’d sent out a companywide email. He shared the story of how one of his children had been bullied during their younger years and how heartbreaking it was for him, as a parent, to witness that kind of pain. Knowing that his fellow humans enduring racial injustice were going through a potentially similar feeling — amplified in such significant ways that he couldn’t even begin to understand — was something that he needed to speak to both internally and publicly.
He shared his heart and company values through the only lens he truly had at his disposal: his experience. He then invited employees to have personal conversations with him to share their views and experiences. And while the rest of us can’t always use this exact approach when addressing the public, there’s still wisdom to take away from the situation about knowing the difference between sharing our opinions and sharing our stories. Consider the following:
1. Ask yourself why.
When you approach your own opinions with a degree of curiosity, you begin to better understand your own stories and how you came to believe certain ideas. The more you understand yourself, the more understanding and context you can offer other people. This moves you out of just having an opinion and into sharing a story.
2. Consider whether the words you’re about to share position someone else as “wrong.”
You can hold a value close to your heart without making another person “wrong” or “bad” for not sharing that value. It’s the difference between saying, “I choose to be vegan because it makes me feel healthier,” and “You shouldn’t eat meat because you’re being cruel to animals.” It’s sharing your own path without declaring that others have to walk it with you. In turn, you hold space for the path that everyone is walking, even if it might differ from yours. That very space you create might be the invitation someone else needs to consider another point of view.
3. Tie your values back to your experiences.
When you share your values and beliefs — especially on emotionally charged issues — can you tie them back to your own experience, either as a leader or a business? When you do this, you create more room for humanity in the equation and allow others to be more human themselves. Sharing your story helps move us past the curtain of politics and polarization and reminds us that we are people with our own feelings and belief systems. When in doubt, lean into what you know, which will always be your own experience.
I would be seriously remiss in advocating for the importance of sharing your story and beliefs if I wasn’t willing to share my own. The truth is, even writing this piece has felt a bit scary because this past year has given me a much deeper appreciation for what it means to have a voice in this world.
And while I can encourage you to honor your voice, I don’t have the answer for how to appropriately navigate the many ways the ground is shaking beneath me. I don’t know the answer because I don’t believe there’s a single “right” answer. Like the CEO’s story that I shared with you at the beginning of this article, I’m just an imperfect human living in an imperfect world and trying to make my way through the ups and downs of any given moment. Maybe you can relate.
This leaves each of us with a choice to make: Do we move through our days holding one another on opposite sides of the fence by sharing only our opinions? Or do we go through our days intentionally removing the barriers between us through the brave act of sharing our stories?