Reconciliation based decision-making in business and politics: why and how


Reconciliation is not in the news. Conflict, polarisation, and division dominate the headlines.

“Trump seeks reconciliation with Obama” is as unlikely a headline as “Rees-Mogg and Johnson urge reconciliation with 48%”.

Bring to mind the most divided board, team or family that you know and then try to imagine that you hear that they are having peace talks. Pigs will fly, you think.

Yet who would have predicted that Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness would have become friends; that Nelson Mandela and FW DeKlerk would do a deal or that Auschwitz survivor Eva Kor would forgive Oskar Groening.

That the unthinkable has happened means it can happen again. Nevertheless, these cases and the circumstances were exceptional.

Numerous political conflicts remain unresolved. Boards implode without reconciling. Countless siblings have “fallen out” and die unreconciled. A battle is more common than a reconciliation.

However, are we not missing a trick here? Yuval Noah Harari in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind writes that “Homo Sapiens conquered the world thanks above all to its unique language.”

He argues that our that triumph was not in our ability to transmit information but for Sapiens to “talk about entire entities that they have never seen”. He calls this “fiction” which “enables us not merely imagine things, but to do so collectively [his italics]”.

For example, he writes, a company is “a figment of our collective imagination. Lawyers call this a ‘legal fiction’…two Serbs who have never met might risk their lives to save one another because they both believe in the existence of the Serbian nation…Two Catholics who have never met can nevertheless go together on crusade or pool funds to build a hospital…”

However, current events suggest that collective fictions are weakening. Corporate scandals have led to the introduction of ESG factors in decision-making challenging the dominance of the “fiction” that shareholder value must take priority over the environment, society and governance factors.

The concept of nation states is under worldwide pressure and, as I write, the Catholic Chruch may be at the beginning of the end of its 2000 year existence having abused its power to the extent that people may no longer be willing to share in some of its “fictions”.

But what if Sapiens decided that its survival depends, in its next stage of evolution, on shared reality, not fiction? What if Leavers and Remainers reconciled themselves to the fact that they will have to work together, whether Brexit is hard or Soft?

What if the board of directors at Carillion had collectively reconciled themselves to the fact that poor corporate governance would lead, ultimately to its destruction? What if the Pope announced in Ireland this weekend that the Vatican will abide by one of the many excellent corporate governance codes?

You can decide whether this is merely wishful thinking or a roadmap for the next stage in our evolution. Meanwhile, I offer a simple three-step process to make reconciliation based decision-making a continuous process in your organisation:

Step 1 Consider the benefits

What if the benefits of reconciliation based decision-making delivered better outcomes than your current decision-making process? I suspect that in most cases they are.

Step 2 Accept starting positions and agree a shared purpose

Accept the other side’s starting position. For example, I’m afraid I have to disagree with Leavers’ views but I must recognise their right to hold them.

The key to our survival is agreement on shared purpose. The Brexit debate could be transformed by parties agreeing on what kind of UK they want since they will have to share it.

Directors on boards could decide, as Gino Wickam suggests in Traction, on ten-year, three-year and one-year horizons since even warring directors don’t want to go out of business. The Pope and Cardinals might accept that they are on a board like any other and must submit to a corporate governance Code.

Step 3 Start making small changes in behaviour

Once people see the benefits of reconciliation, have agreed on a shared purpose the hard part is sticking with the deal. Sapiens is weak-willed and will frequently fail, but if encouraged to take small steps and if these small successes are celebrated then significant change is possible. History bears this out.

And as Primo Levi wrote: “If not now, when?”

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