Division in America has been on the rise in recent years, and few areas of US public life remain untouched. Whether it's a discussion at a family gathering, over social media, or at a coffee shop, Americans are more polarized than ever. There is frustration that others “don’t get it” and that they don’t want to talk about it.

While these contentious differences are highly visible in social and political arenas, they have also permeated the business community, forcing companies to take stands, as such divides affect everyday business decisions and employee engagement. But today’s wide-ranging divides — racial, economic, geographic, education, media, and others — have challenged business leaders.    

Where do these divides come from? Why are they relevant to business leaders? And what can they do to address them? Answering those questions is the goal of Values in Action, one of Columbia University’s latest initiatives aimed at closing the conversation gap. 

At an event hosted by The Hub at Columbia Business School in February, students, staff, and faculty gathered to discuss how business leaders can better understand and address rising polarization. Dialogue Across Difference: Lessons from Bridging the American Divides was led by CBS’s Todd Jick, the Reuben Mark Faculty Director of Organizational Character and Leadership at the Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. Center for Leadership and Ethics, and Bruce Usher, professor of professional practice and the Elizabeth B. Strickler '86 and Mark T. Gallogly '86 Faculty Director of the Tamer Center for Social Enterprise. For seven years, Jick and Usher have taught a course of the same name aimed at a future crop of business leaders concerned about the increasing divides in this country.

Professor Todd Jick
Professor Todd Jick

“Two people can look at the exact same situation, filter that through their lived experience, and immediately jump to a different conclusion based on their intuitions. They then find the facts to support their conclusions, and now they are polarized,” Usher said at the event.

He explained how humans are wired to make instantaneous decisions based on intuition, and then seek out facts that back up these conclusions while ignoring facts that don’t. While this way of thinking works well for simple and immediate threats, complex issues — such as climate change, immigration, employment, and health care — aren’t served nearly as well.

Jick showcased research that found a majority of people prefer to avoid difficult dialogue about such contentious issues and often feel highly stressed and fearful of having such a dialogue. As a result, “unfriending” and distancing from those who differ from us becomes all too common. While this behavior may temporarily ease one’s anxieties, polarization deepens and constructive dialogue all but dissolves.

Charting the Course

The Bridging the American Divides course was born out of a conversation hosted by Raymond Horton, the Frank R. Lautenberg Professor Emeritus of Ethics and Corporate Governance at CBS, and Glenn Hubbard, dean emeritus and the Russell L. Carson Professor of Finance and Economics.

While discussing the rise of populism in America, just days before the election of US President Donald Trump in 2016, the professors posited that many Americans on the country’s coasts were unaware of the sentiments of people living in the heartland. After Trump was elected, they knew something had to be done to bridge the gap. 

The course features six weeks of lectures and discussions designed to give future business leaders a better understanding of the causes and consequences of the many American divides. Following the lectures, students take a multiday trip to Youngstown, Ohio, where they engage with residents working in local businesses and community, government, religious, and nonprofit organizations.

Professor Bruce Usher
Professor Bruce Usher

Usher noted that while it once was the role of government and nonprofit organizations to broker bipartisan conversation, business leaders “can no longer ignore these issues, whether they like it or not.” Surveys show that business stakeholders — including customers, employees, and investors — are expecting CEOs to respond to many of the most contentious issues dividing Americans today. 

“You really don’t have a choice. You have got to be familiar with these issues and figure out how you want to address them,” Usher said. As such, the course offers first principles and techniques for constructive dialogue that can bridge divides in opinions and views.

For example, Jick and Usher recommended a “listen to understand rather than respond” strategy to overcome the deep instinct to win, advocate, and persuade. Indeed, Jick stressed that business leaders and others must resist the goal of changing minds and the self-satisfaction in communicating their own viewpoints and instead elevate the goal of active listening. This requires the discipline to learn new speaking and listening skills. 

Jick illustrated how language of “truth” polarizes while language of “here’s what I see from my experience” enables dialogue. He added that this is mirrored by listening in ways that demonstrate an authentic desire and curiosity to understand others’ life experiences and vantage points.

While many business school courses revolve around teaching students how to be analytical and reactive to a particular issue, the Bridging the American Divides course teaches empathy as a key building block.

“Empathy is trying to understand why that person reached that conclusion. What is it about their lived experience that brought them to that conclusion?” Usher said. “It doesn’t mean you have to agree with them.”

Jick stressed that the course requires students to go beyond their comfort zone and natural affinity groups and reach out to people with opposing viewpoints, including one assignment to read media from “the other side.” Students say this is one of the keys to the course’s success.

By reaching out to the other side, students are better able to approach conversations around globalization, immigration, and job loss, as well as more structural divides, like race, income, geography, education, and media. Moreover, Jick and Usher challenge their students to become responsible and skillful leaders who model the principles of constructive dialogue, empathy, humility, and curiosity.

The Bigger Picture: Values in Action

Columbia University launched the Values in Action initiative in December, shortly after the start of the 2023 Israel-Hamas War. In doing so, the University is fostering a community where debates and disagreements are rooted in academic rigor, civil discourse, and, above all, compassion.

In addition to Dialogue Across Difference, the Values in Action initiative includes
 Listening Forums, hosted by Columbia’s Office of the President, and a new rapid response process aimed at making it easier for students, staff, and faculty to report hate speech, harassment, and other forms of disruptive behavior.

“Our community must be defined by both freedom of speech and mutual respect,” Columbia University President Minouche Shafik said in a video announcing the initiative. “Our conversations need to be rooted in academic rigor, scholarship, and civil discourse, not taunts and cruelty.”

Shafik’s message followed
 a letter signed by the deans of the University’s 17 Schools, which called for “courage, leadership, and mutual respect.”