Lessons from U.S. politics

Written by
Anthony J. Nyberg

04 Aug 2016

04 Aug 2016 • by Anthony J. Nyberg

The troubled situation...

Political headlines from the United States are troubling.

Recent rhetoric from both Democrats and Republican Party candidates in the United States could lead one to fear that the United States is on the verge of implosion, potentially resulting in radical changes to foreign policy and economic relationships. From Democrats, Secretary Clinton, is the front runner for the Democratic nomination. This inability to pivot toward centrist positions that will help in a general election results from the steadfastness of Senator Sanders who has captured the imagination of middle class youth who are unencumbered by memories of communism’s failures. 

Concurrently, as implausible as the notion seemed a few months ago, the Republican nominee is Donald Trump. Trump’s continues to make headlines for either making, condoning, or at a minimum not condemning racist, sexist, and xenophobic comments, shaming victims, promoting extreme rhetoric and encouraging his followers to act aggressively toward those whom they disagree. He calls for starting trade wars, closing borders, and disparages our friends and allies when challenged. While it is impossible to know what Mr. Trump believes on many issues, it is accurate to say that his campaign rallies and supporters are angry and on average more violent than we have seen in U.S. rallies in many decades. 

Warning for HR managers

Fear is real and powerful. The anger emanating from the far right and left contributing to the political landscape is explainable and offers lessons for organisations. The emotions that Mr. Trump exploits are genuine. Trump’s popularity owes to an angry minority that is primarily white, middle class, relatively less well schooled, and not used to being the minority. This group is scared because the world that they thought they were born, one where hard work was enough to guarantee upward mobility, has not fulfilled their expectations. To this new minority, the radical changes in the world are not their fault, and the easiest people for them to blame are those that do not look like them and whom they do not know. 

Their anger is visceral and directed at those perceived threats to their jobs and the politicians who do not protect them. Trump voters tend to be middle aged, middle class workers who joined the workforce when mutual loyalty between employee and employer was the norm and one could expect loyalty from and to one organisation for a lifetime. Sanders voters tend to be young, mostly unemployed or underemployed who feel betrayed by rising costs (e.g., school) and increased employment challenges. These two voting blocks, at opposite ends of the ideological spectrum, are united by fear of change, largely driven by inevitable challenges resulting from a truly global workforce. 

What should business learn?

The odds of a Trump or Sanders presidency are minimal, but the emotions evoked are real and are not isolated to the U.S. Throughout the world, similar fears lead to mass hysteria about the dangers of immigration and to changes in the status quo. Such fear is common to the human condition and organisations will do well to understand that their own employees often experience angst when thinking about the future as organizations continue to evolve. Additionally, the power of mass emotion should never be underestimated

Organisational culture and employee psychology matter. The value in serving global customers as well as the need to rely on workers from around the world is clear. This understanding, which is no longer a belief, but rather a fact of business success, guarantees that no matter how scary politics may look, no matter how divisive the political discourse, no matter how inflammatory the political rhetoric, increased unity is something to be embraced, and impossible to avoid. However, to optimise effectiveness, this must be communicated continually and become engrained in the organisation’s culture. The rationale for why global expansion is beneficial for all and for why increased competition ultimately makes us all better must continually be shared throughout the organisation.

What should you do?

You must continue to do what is right by all of your stakeholders, including your employees. This includes continually and honestly communicating how organisational changes will affect everyone and how it will benefit employees as well as the bottom line. This means that it is also incumbent upon HR to continually develop the skills that will enhance worker abilities. If you do this, you will continue to drive the prosperity that betters all. While HR is has achieved the proverbial “seat at the table” by becoming better at making the business case, HR also ought to be the best at recognising the culture of the organisation and understanding employee psychology. Harnessing the passion of employees, helping assure that their interests matter too, and that they are one of the important stakeholders will lead to a more motivated workforce, higher retention, and an increased ability to attract the best talent. Companies that do this better than others will have a competitive advantage.