Empathy In Toxic Partisan Pandemic-Based Conflicts: How
Organizational Strategy Can Help Us Do Better
By Lucas Smart
Hopefully, the Corona Virus Pandemic (CVP) is fading into our rearview mirror. However, with new variants unfurling, and other countries struggling to address those variants, this is a good time for introspection. As a Nation (our government and our people), collectively we did not respond to the CVP well; in fact, we botched the job. One reason we botched it is that we allowed the CVP to become a toxic, partisan polarizing issue (TPPI). That’s not necessarily an unpredictable outcome. Democrats and Republicans fought over seatbelts too, but it is unfortunate and perhaps avoidable.
The Constitution does not require any type of political party system. Prominent Framers of the Constitution including George Washington and James Madison feared the possibility that two parties might dominate politics in the United States and believed a two-party political system posed a “mortal danger” to our young republic. See Lee Drutman, Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop (p. 23) Oxford University Press (2020). Nevertheless, we developed into a two-party Nation. During the CVP, we let our two-party system drive us into a competition vs. cooperation paradox in which we fight each other instead of cooperating even though cooperation is the rational choice. Unfortunately, cooperation has become associated with weakness, and politicians are rewarded for being intransigent.
The effects of political competition in the face of a common threat like the CVP play out in our daily lives. For example, compliance (or non-compliance) with CVP safety protocols has become a way of expressing political-party solidarity. This phenomenon is illustrative of how powerfully TPPIs affect our wellbeing.
The CVP is a catastrophe, but it is a particularly difficult type of catastrophe for an organization (like a country) to respond to because its ramifications accrete over time. Nevertheless, the CVP’s catastrophic effects may be just as, if not more, devastating than many short-duration catastrophes. During typical catastrophic events, the need for crisis management results in the formation of hierarchical command structures and civil compliance. However, the CVP’s slowly evolving nature did not evoke this type of response.
As the CVP took hold of our Nation, people did not comply with directives intended to help them. One reason we didn’t comply is that government and media messaging on the dangers of the CVP was, at least initially, inconsistent and poorly informed. Additionally, media outlets issued conflicting guidance. Making matters worse, a plethora of readily available—often inflammatory—social media provided social proof and support for people on both sides of the conflict.
Initially, we were told not to wear masks because touching and adjusting them created a greater risk of contracting Covid (the early advice not to wear masks was apparently given, in part, because there were not enough masks available for health-care workers). From an organizational perspective, the government’s early messaging—
from responsible entities like the CDC—was detrimental for several reasons. See https://www.latimes.com/science/story/2021-07-27/timeline-cdc-mask-guidance-during-covid-19-pandemic (last visited April 27, 2022). The inaccurate guidance put people’s lives at risk and eroded public trust, but—perhaps worst of all—it was the type of traditional, pyramidal top down (and dumbed down) management that keeps people from connecting to organizations and developing their own leadership mechanisms. Popular television media was not helpful either. On March 12, 2020, CNN’s Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, appeared on TNT’s television show “Inside The NBA” and told viewers that “healthy people who are trying to prevent getting infected by wearing a mask can actually increase their chances of getting infected. It’s counterintuitive but true.” See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aYyqj7Lit8M (video at minute 11: 43) (last visited April 27, 2022).
Organizational democracy empowers people to think for themselves and to be part of the solution, not to blindly obey convenient anecdotes. The CDC director and prominent public figures like Dr. Gupta might have said something like: “We don’t want people to panic because panic can cause more harm than the virus itself. We need people to stop buying medical-grade masks because health-care workers are running out of them. Use handkerchiefs for now, we are working on getting high-quality masks mass produced, and they will be available as soon as possible. In the meantime, we are still trying to figure out how dangerous Covid 19 is. It could be serious, or it may be insignificant; we will tell you what we learn as soon as we have more information. Please know that no one has better information about Covid 19 than we do, and we will tell you the truth and keep you informed. Social media may be a great vehicle for entertainment and keeping in touch with friends, but we guarantee you nothing you learn from social media about Covid 19 is as accurate as what we’re telling you.”
That type of message would have been much more conducive to the development of ubiquitous leadership (or at least more “grass roots” leadership), transformational synthesis, and ultimately an organizational democracy capable of effectively addressing the CVP catastrophe. Instead, the government and major media outlets either reached conclusions without adequate supporting evidence or prioritized calming the public over providing accurate information.
When it became obvious that the CDC’s early guidance was wrong and the government pivoted to telling us to wear masks and avoid public spaces, the political right seized on the mistake to assault the credibility of the political left. The political right chose to compete instead of cooperating. Adding fuel to the political right’s message (i.e., that the left was over-reaching) was the fact that the measures government imposed, like shuttering restaurants and other commercial enterprises, hurt businesses and compromised people’s ability to earn a living.
One can recall popular media commentators lambasting people who would not wear masks and people who opposed the CVP shutdowns. Commentators with left-leaning political views were essentially calling mask opponents ignorant fools. That type of rhetoric is competitive, polarizing, and counterproductive. Those sentiments were expressed at a conflict crossroads that could have been handled better. The conflict crossroads asks us to choose between remaining rooted in our own position or trying to put ourselves in other people’s shoes so we can understand them well enough to work together.
Imagine, for example, that you are a single mom working as a restaurant waitress barely making enough to pay the rent. If the restaurant shuts down, you may literally be out on the streets. Maybe you and your child will end up in a shelter, but conditions at the shelter may be dangerous. Under those circumstances, the loss of your job equates to a potential threat to the life of your child. All the while, the CDC and respected figures have, at minimum, equivocated about the efficacy of wearing masks. Additionally, respected politicians and various news outlets are saying the government is overreaching. Under those circumstances, who would you want to believe?
For many of us, the logic is simple; we might lose some money if we do not work, but we cannot work if we are dead, so staying home makes sense. For the single mother described above, the logic is just as simple. She thinks: “I cannot get Covid if I freeze to death or get murdered on the streets. So, working at Kip’s Dinner and risking getting Covid is my best option.” She may not be wrong, context makes a big difference. When we don’t take the time to stop and empathize with people we disagree with, we become part of the problem.
Looking back and criticizing the government, the media, public personalities, and politicians is easy; offering a better path forward is not. The question is: What could we have done (and can still do) better as a Nation—as an organization—to address the CVP conflict and other TPPI conflicts? One option is evolving webs of association, a strategy for organizational transformation pioneered by two of the foremost scholars and practitioners in the organization conflict and dispute resolution field, Kenneth Cloke and Joan Goldsmith. Cloke and Goldsmith describe several key features of evolving webs of association by explaining that they are:
Self-managing . . . structures that are highly responsive to environmental conditions. . . . [They include] teams, networks, and alliances [that] design their own roles, communications, systems, processes, and relationships . . . in response to rapidly changing conditions, problems, and opportunities. Webs of association constantly evolve in purpose, size, shape, structure, process, . . . and operate continually in a learning mode.
See Kenneth Cloke; Joan Goldsmith, The End of Management and the Rise of Organizational Democracy (pp.103-04) Jossey-Bass (Warren Bennis Series) (2002). Imagine what might have happened if, in late 2019 (when it was clear that the question was when Covid 19 would reach the U.S., not if it would), the President had called together a group of perhaps 30 people consisting of scientists; the CDC director; industry leaders; major news network executives; economists; the speaker of the house (i.e., the leader of the opposition party); and advocates for people who tend to be marginalized including the poor, the elderly, the young, and people of color. They all could have discussed how the Nation might best address a worst-case CVP scenario.
The President might have explained that they had done a simple Google search and learned that roughly every 100 to 300 years the world experiences a catastrophic pandemic that claims millions of lives. See https://globalhealth.duke.edu/news/statistics-say-large-pandemics-are-more-likely-we-thought (last visited April 27, 2022). Together, this group could have considered what needed to be done to be prepared for a worst-case CVP scenario. Industry leaders could have left the meeting and started evolving their own webs of association that may have prepared restaurants to turn to a delivery-only business model. Grocery stores could have made plans to start meeting customers in parking lots with their orders. Someone might have realized it would be a good idea to ramp up production of high-quality masks. Media outlets might have agreed on reporting standards designed to save lives instead of sensationalizing the CVP for ratings and adding to its TPPI nature. The CDC may have more carefully considered how to disseminate information about the CVP. The speaker of the house and the President might have agreed that they would not allow political gamesmanship to turn the CVP into a political punching bag and a TPPI. Support systems for single working parents might have been cultivated.
It is possible that webs of association alone could have saved hundreds of thousands of lives and jobs without costing anyone an exorbitant amount of time or money. Because there will always be another pandemic waiting for us somewhere in the future—even if we can put the CVP in our rearview mirror—the exercise of evolving these webs of association would be worth everyone’s time and effort. Once in place, such webs might be utilized to help address other problems as well.
One might say that we already have the internet and smartphones which create a type of web. Therefore, they might suggest, webs of association are superfluous. However, an arguably critical distinction between evolving webs of association and other means of linking people is that webs of association establish a unique human-to-human connection. Such webs would create obvious economic advantages, but the wellbeing of people would be the driving engine behind webs of association that evolve to address the CVP. Many organizations prioritize profit over people, which may be one of the reasons some social media has been detrimental during the CVP. Evolving webs of association can be structured to avoid this problem.
With some forethought, creativity, and planning, evolving webs of association might greatly reduce the impact the CVP has had (or ultimately will have). The CVP could be a common threat around which our Nation rallies, helping it evolve toward a better organizational democracy. Unfortunately, that has not happened yet.