Jonathan Haidt's latest book, released today, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure, coauthored by Greg Lukianoff, takes on one of the issues of our time--public discourse, especially in higher education--expanding on their widely discussed Atlantic article of the same name.

Whether leading a small team, a company, a nation, a family, or oneself, research shows that input from diverse views improves decisions and outcomes--if you have the skills to solicit and use it. On a personal level, Haidt's advice led me to solicit views from Trump voters in Inc. after the election (what few there are near NYU where I live and teach tend to keep their political views quiet) and speak to them, leading me to understand and work with people with views the mainstream media hadn't found.

I believe I'm a better leader and citizen for it.

I met Jonathan at the World Science Festival and recorded a podcast interview of him that changed my approach to leadership--in principle and in practice. I seek more opposing views. I listen more. I look to learn their intent and the beliefs and values motivating that intent. I challenge myself more.

As he colorfully said to me:

We are going through an extraordinary time in which social media and other recent changes are turning us all into self-righteous jerks.

Our combined jerkitude threatens to destroy society.

We all have to turn it down, be more humble. We don't know the truth. We don't have privileged access to the truth and we have to give each other the benefit of the doubt.

The result: people I would not have spoken to follow my lead, I think because they see I value their views more. Listening to make someone feel understood engages otherwise disengaged people.

Why getting diverse views is hard

The challenge is that the cognitive conflict that improves outcomes creates affective (mood) conflict--blame and anger, for example. In your teams, affective conflict can lead to disengagement and turnover. In our culture, it's resulted in polarization undermining discourse essential to democracy.

Haidt's TED talks (viewed over 10 million times) and first two books, The Righteous Mind (a #1 bestseller) and The Happiness Hypothesis, while based in academic research (he teaches at NYU-Stern, arriving from University of Virginia, University of Pennsylvania, and Yale), trace an arc from academic to personal and active--a leader's journey. His writing is clear and accessible, as is his speech.

He illustrates with vivid, useful imagery. The Happiness Hypothesis describes our motivational systems as a small intellectual rider on a big emotional elephant. That image has made its way into the psychology community vernacular.

The Righteous Mind describes how differing liberal and conservative moral foundations make liberal politicians seem like a restaurant serving bland food to conservative politicians, among other results.

He describes how effective team outcomes come not from everyone agreeing nor fighting, but disagreeing when they can work things out. His findings informs leaders how to create visions for how our teams work.

What we can do

He suggests we don't want a polarized black and white nor an even gray. We benefit from a yin-yang: black within white and white within black--liberals speaking and listening to conservatives and vice versa.

Our culture plainly lacks this humble but productive discourse and is losing what little it has. Haidt told me his research found that youths haven't even heard the phrase "sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me."

Whatever our intention, as leaders and as a culture we have moved from a challenging but effective yin-yang to disjoint black and white communities, evidenced in safe spaces, trigger warnings, free speech zones, and the like, practiced by all political stripes. As a result, our organizations can't hire the best nor compete optimally for fear of the conflict in our teams that, ironically, would create the outcomes we want.

Calm resolve and useful effective insight

The Coddling of the American Mind, by taking on offense and outrage on a cultural level, teaches how to handle it in our lives. We'll lead more effectively and attract top talent as a result. You can hear a preview at the Leadership and the Environment podcast.

Published on: Sep 4, 2018