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How business leaders can learn from the mistakes of our political leaders

Big Ben
Public Affairs

Organisations thrive when they enable diversity of thought and encourage constructive challenge and debate.

Avoiding group thinking by ensuring people feel they can ask thoughtful questions and receive thoughtful answers leads to better internal communications, better feedback and better decisions.

Political debate rarely set a shining example of this, but there are clues from where it goes wrong and – more rarely – where it goes right.

The vacuum of excitement around the general election hasn’t been filled with a great debate of ideas from any of the main political parties. There has been no great intellectual debate between different visions for how to tackle the huge, structural issues facing the country over the coming years.

This isn’t anything new in modern politics, but the nature of political debate – and how political leaders engage with it – has only exacerbated the trend towards soundbites and caution that creates both distance and distrust between voters and politicians and leave that space for real debate smaller and smaller.

Leaders and communicators in business can learn lessons from politics on how to avoid the same happening in their organisations. Key among those lessons is engaging fully with the question and – importantly - with the questioner

Creating space

It is increasingly rare for a politician to engage seriously with what they are being asked and to build a proper argument. Political interviews and audience Q&As are much tighter than they used to be – covering too many topics in too short a time. As a result there is no space for either the question or the answer to breathe, let alone for an actual debate to develop that could change minds.

Compare the current set of TV debates with this clip that went viral on political Twitter this week of Richard Tice – until recently the leader of Reform UK – as a much younger Question Time audience member debating then Prime Minister Tony Blair in 2001 on whether Britain should join the Euro. Watching back, Blair engages directly with the argument, disagreeing firmly but politely before taking each of his points in turn. It went viral because it was so refreshingly different to what we are seeing from the current crop of politicians: no platitudes, no bridging to a pre-prepared set of soundbites, and no inauthentic attempt to fake a connection between the questioner and the answerer.

Clearly, given his future career, Tice was not at all convinced by Blair. But the exchange showed genuine engagement with the person asking the question and their argument and left the wider audience with something to think about and confidence that their own questions would get a similarly fair hearing.

Having confidence

Businesses seeking to genuinely make space for debates – whether on client strategies or internal organisational decisions – fail when they lack the confidence to engage with counter arguments or reservations.

But more than that, without creating an environment where people within those organisations feel they can or should challenge, probe and query there can be no debate at all.

And though often not immediately apparent, that lack of debate can hint at a lack of confidence or buy-in that management spots too late.

A tumbleweed blowing through the room after a leader asks “any questions” may often not signal universal agreement but universal apathy or resignation.

Debate – and a genuine engagement in different points of view – may be a dying art in politics. But businesses must work hard to make sure they make space for it and keep it thriving in their own organisations.

Originally published in PR Moment.