Friday, January 4, 2008

Tough Topics

Politics and religion can be dangerous topics in mixed company. It's hard to know who believes what and what comments might offend people. So, the safest and best route for association executives is to stay away from those topics, right? No. Emphatically, no!

Granted, there are some situations in which it is best to avoid both subject areas, but generally speaking, association executives should be leaders in conversations about areas that are sensitive. Indeed, any leader should feel compelled to talk about, and to encourage discussion about, politics and religion and any other topics that tend to create more heat than light. Why? Because dispassionate discourse can lead to understanding and acceptance or, at the very least, tolerance. And tolerance of divergent views is the cornerstone of any truly successful association and any truly successful association executive. The key is the way in which 'tough' topics are handled.

Association executives should, in my view, set the stage for any tough topics by laying the cards on the table, e.g.,

"We're going to discuss TOPIC A. I know this can be an emotional issue with many people, but I'm counting on everyone to be respectful of every comment, every opinion, and every perspective. It's especially important for those of us with very strong opinions to not only listen to opposing viewpoints, but to try to truly understand and embrace those points of view. Our objective here is not to demonize the opposition but, rather, to reach concensus on compromise."
In my opinion, truly capable association executives are those who actively seek out people with divergent opinions so they can better understand all perspectives. And by leading by example, association executives can, bit by bit, change an organization's culture from one of exclusionary distrust to inclusiveness and philosophical tolerance.

In my own company, I make it a point to tell applicants for employment that this company's philosophy is one of inclusion and tolerance and that we value diversity. We don't just tolerate diversity, it is actively sought out; we value it.

People who cannot be comfortable with diversity in gender, religion, race, sexual orientation, etc. are unlikely to be comfortable in an association environment. After all, associations bring people together from all walks of life, all sort of backgrounds, and all manner of personal experiences. While association members have some common interest or interests, that one commonality is likely to be dwarfed by the vast sea of differences between members.

Association executives have the opportunity to be leaders in promoting tolerance and in promoting the value of diversity. Tough topics are, in fact, tools of leadership that can be used by skilled association executives to make a lasting impact on the organizations with which they are associated.