During this election cycle, we are exposed to numerous examples of how politicians lead, how they make decisions, and how they engender support and create followers. We expect our nation’s leaders to set a good example and show us how things are supposed to be done. We look up to political leaders and other leaders to find examples in their behavior to admire, emulate and aspire to achieve. We admire their courage, their incisive analysis, their ability to smooth out rough edges and bring people together, their ability to move things forward, their clarity of thought, or emotional connection or strong moral stance.
Many of us watch our political leaders with the desire to be inspired to vote, to support a candidate, a party, a cause. Most of all, we are looking for signs that our political system is capable of solving modern problems and moving our country forward through responsible government.
However, the lessons we learn from watching political campaigns are less about inspiration and more about old-school motivational techniques. Most election campaigns are designed to create fear and anger to spur voters into action. Listen to the rhetoric, the negative ads and even talking points coming from the candidates and their surrogates. What you hear is designed to appeal to your reptilian brain — to generate fear and anger — about the other candidate. Rather than tell you what they can do for you, it is far easier to generate fear about what the other candidate might or might not do to ruin your future. It has become so negative that the tone of the campaign was raised as an issue by the moderator, Martha Raddatz, in the vice presidential debate.
When a candidate projects potential outcomes, intentions and positions onto the opponent, the incentive is to draw out possible consequences to the extreme negative possibilities, and to develop a powerful narrative of how much worse it could be if the other side wins. Anonymous third parties fan the flames and call it free speech.
Notice the use of emotional language, of imprecise terms, of judgment calls against positions taken by the other side, and dismissal of any positive momentum those opponents might have created. If the goal is to get elected, this strategy can actually work. We see attack ads and negative ads used so much because they are effective at emotionally engaging voters, getting them upset, terrified, angry. Because angry and afraid voters show up to the polls and vote against the thing they fear. The goal of the political campaign is to generate passion to get voters to choose sides, to care enough to vote, to donate, to campaign, and this is most easily done through creating fear and anger.
The problems with this type of campaigning are many. We do get people to rally to a candidate long enough to defeat “the other guy,” but after the election, we may suffer a morning-after hangover, realizing that the victor is barely more inspiring or admirable than the opponent we voted against.
When your plan is weak or complicated, or time is short, a forceful negative campaign that vilifies the opponent, their policies, their party and their character is a short-cut to voter turnout. It causes people to suspend their logical doubts and concerns about your plan, because their emotions about the alternative have taken over. Fundamentally, it is a stress response, and stress turns off our ability to reason effectively.
In business, we also see some leaders who adopt a top-down command and control style leadership. This may truly be needed in crises, but it stifles creativity and engagement over the longer haul. In today’s business environment, where innovation, motivation and productivity are more needed than ever, this style of leadership is rapidly losing favor. Not for any “soft” reasons, but because it simply isn’t effective at driving business growth.
If politics is about getting people to choose sides (mine and that other one), business is about building bridges, collaborating and getting the best out of a group of people. While I personally wish government was more like this, partisan politics dictates otherwise. Unless you want to polarize your base at work, you need to cultivate a different way of leading that treats conflict as a positive way to get ideas on the table in order to create better solutions. In business, it is not productive to paint any particular position as disastrous, stupid or dangerous, but rather to take on board the merits of differing approaches before deciding on a course of action, and making that thought process transparent to bring others along with you.
What can you do to make sure you are not falling into the trap of negative fear-based motivation in your own leadership? First, look for the language of opportunity, of vision and of collaboration. Rather than “us” and “them,” use language that emphasizes how moving forward helps everyone. Second, listen more and talk less. When you talk, demonstrate that you listened. Incorporate feedback or at least respond to it. Third, seek to build upon what is already working and focus on that rather than always pointing out flaws and weaknesses. When there are failures, draw the lessons from every one, and improve the process to avoid making the same ones again. It is particularly helpful to own your own mistakes and share how you are addressing them. People follow leaders with humility who are learning and growing.
It is unlikely we’ll see politicians adopting any of these techniques in the current political climate, but a campaign that focused on inspiration, vision and specific ways in which the candidate would address our national goals and challenges, would help bring citizens together to work out practical solutions that most of us would embrace. Rather than any candidate only gaining the support of 50 percent of the population, we might see citizens lining up to support the victor even when they supported his opponent. They might see the other candidate’s approach as viable and potentially productive, instead of villainizing that political opponent as evil incarnate, bent on the destruction of the very country that elected them.