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What’s good about divisiveness

The recent elections exposed our deep divides, burst the bubbles and forced us into challenging conversations. This is a good thing, Susan Fowler writes.

5 min read


fowler divisiveness

Our divisive times present an opportunity to reach out and learn from one another, but we need to learn how.

During a recent workplace discussion, I was “accused” of being an elitist.

When my accuser couldn’t tell me what he meant by the term, I offered, “I came from a poor family, put myself through college by working and taking out loans that I repaid in full, teach in a university Master’s program although I only have a BS degree, travel the world, think deeply about my beliefs and values, and have strong opinions that I love to share and am open to exploring. Does that make me an elitist?”

Were my accuser and I using the same definition of “elitist”? Why did this accusation seem so divisive? It would be easy to show how divisive conversations are created through the use of labels and terms that we don’t fully understand or, at best, disagree on their meaning. The direction I’d like to explore is how the differences among us have come to a head politically and are getting played out socially in workplaces and homes.

I’m curious if you agree or disagree with two of my conclusions.

Divisiveness can be a good thing

Much has been made about people living in bubbles without empathy for people outside the bubble. With thousands of media outlets, living in a bubble has never been easier. People are choosing outlets they affiliate with, that reinforce their current beliefs, and that limit their exposure to a wider array of perspectives.

Media segmentation perpetuates our deeply divided bubbles, but major differences of opinion have always existed. Our bubbles made it easier to ignore them. We stifled conversations based on religion, politics, and personal issues in the workplace — and even in our personal lives. Our differences never found the light of day, remaining hidden and festering in the darkness. Until now.

The recent elections exposed our deep divides, burst the bubbles and forced us into challenging conversations. This is a good thing.

The attention on our divisiveness is shining a light on issues that reflect beliefs and values that guide our everyday decision making and actions. That’s what my accuser did. He brought our potential divisiveness into the light. I could choose to deflect or engage. I was at a choice point.

Answering these questions for myself required a skill that leads to my second assertion.

Most of us lack the skills necessary to deal with divisiveness

Turning divisiveness into a good thing demands the skill of developing values.

Values are premeditated, cognitive standards of what you consider good or bad, better, or best. Values are enduring beliefs you have chosen to accept as guidelines for how you work and live your life.

Values are at the heart of the self-regulation needed to engage in divisive conversations, yet most of us have not learned how to develop values. I find this ironic. If you stop people in the hallway at work and ask them to list their organization’s values, chances are they will come close. But ask them about the values they walked through the door with that morning, and most stumble or recite programmed values that have not been fully explored.

A developed value is freely chosen from alternatives with an understanding of the consequences of the alternatives. It is prized and cherished. It is acted upon over time.

The skill of developing values requires asking yourself hard questions, exploring your beliefs, challenging programmed values, and taking the time to effectively articulate what you believe, think, and feel.

When I was accused of being an elitist, I saw myself in a fun house mirror — I saw a reflection of myself I’d never seen before. As frightening as it was, it was also a good thing. This divisive conversation gave me an intriguing opportunity to dig into my beliefs and values with more questions: What is an elitist? Am I an elitist? Do I want to be an elitist?

Right now we have an opportunity to shine a light on our espoused values and the beliefs underlying them. With this personal knowledge, we can then develop the values we choose to live by, make decisions with and use as a basis for taking action.

The news is full of stories about married couples separating because they voted for opposing political parties, roommate ads barring Trump supporters, and workplaces filled with people afraid to talk to each other. Without the insight that comes from the process of developing values, people separate, isolate, and sublimate.

The questions that divide us can only be answered through consideration of developed values. As a leader, I implore you to teach employees how to move from programmed values that generate unexplored and unexplainable emotions to developed values through a mindful process that results in the empathy required to deal with our differences and the understanding we need to flourish at work and in life.

(And, stay tuned if you’re curious about how I used the skill of developing values to answer the question, “Am I an elitist?”)


Susan Fowler implores leaders to stop trying to motivate people. In her latest bestselling book, she explains “Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work … And What Does: The New Science of Leading, Engaging, and Energizing. She is the author of by-lined articles, peer-reviewed research, and six books, including the bestselling “Self Leadership” and the “One Minute Manager” with Ken Blanchard. Tens of thousands of people worldwide have learned from her ideas through training programs, such as the Situational Self Leadership and Optimal Motivation product lines. For more information, visit

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