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How America’s Working Class Found Common Ground With A Limousine-Riding Playboy

Donald Trump Holds Campaign Rally In Alabama Ahead Of Super TuesdayDonald Trump Holds Campaign Rally In Alabama Ahead Of Super Tuesday
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump greets guests following a campaign rally at the Madison City Schools Stadium on February 28, 2016 in Madison, Alabama. Scott Olson — Getty Images

With the apparent chaos in the oval office, it might seem like President Trump is on the ropes. But Democrats and anti-Trump activists would do well to remember that the underlying issues propelling his election victory haven’t changed.

In a recent interview with The New York Times, Steve Bannon asserted that the media “don’t understand this country. They still do not understand why Donald Trump is the president of the United States.” Bannon is a controversial figure for good reason, but no matter where your views fall on the political spectrum, his provocative assertion is worth thinking about.

There are many lessons to be learned from the rise of Trump. But as business consultants and leadership experts, we want to focus on what it means for working with and understanding others. Bottom line: Whether you are running a political campaign or a business, you might be more insulated and isolated than you think.

With perfect hindsight on the 2016 election, it’s clear that pundits as well as partisans were locked into intense discussions with like-minded authorities, supporters, and friends. Most of the analysis simply reflected and reinforced assumptions behind entrenched viewpoints. Only the journalists who did the hard work of gathering “small data” through shoe-leather reporting knew the score.

If you had listened carefully, you would have heard the common complaint that unites Trump voters and critics alike: millions were shouting they feel left out and left behind. Like countless leaders who have lost touch, pollsters and politicians missed the message. Our big takeaway is that, as George Orwell once said, “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.”

In politics and business, social life is defined by boundaries that are sometimes hard to see and harder to cross. As people who have experience managing cultural conflict in the workplace, we see three key lessons for effective leadership:

Go beyond big data and listen to “deep stories”

Sociologist Arlie Hochschild saw the Trump insurgency rising before many pollsters by listening to the “deep stories” of rural voters. She heard over and over from disaffected Democrats who see a country in which outsiders who play by different rules make off with the spoils. To be able to understand and manage the friction in your own business, you have you have to go deeper than big data. To catch hidden misalignments before they blow up, listen to the stories your people tell about who they are and how they relate to your organization.

Pay attention to the 3Gs

Leadership scholar Robert Hogan summarized a lot of the anthropological knowledge about human societies when he said that the basic concerns driving all of us are “getting along and getting ahead.” To that, we would add getting things done. When you listen to other people’s stories, pay attention to these “3Gs”: who they consider to be in or out of their group, what they value, and what problems they want to solve. This tells you what motivates any group, whether it be a voting bloc, a corporate division, or a product team, and how you can build a connection with them.

Speak their language

Every group or team has its own way of thinking, acting and communicating. Listen to Trump supporters, and you’ll understand why so many working-class people found common ground with a limousine-riding playboy. Over and over, these people have said: “He tells it like it is,” even though many of them view him as being dishonest. But he describes the world and the way it should be in terms they relate to, using the words they use. That connection is so meaningful that even someone as different as Trump seems like one of theirs. This is why attacks that focus on his blunt talk aren’t particularly effective. Anyone looking to build relationships across organizational boundaries would be wise to heed the words of Roman statesman Cicero: “If you wish to persuade me, you must think my thoughts, feel my feelings, and speak my words.”

We think the next leadership test for Trump is whether he can embody another important quality – inclusion — and speak to a broader coalition than the one that won him the election. For Democrats and anti-Trump activists, the question is whether they can connect with the deep stories of disaffected voters and find a new common language. For all of us, the key to leading and collaborating across boundaries is to listen to the small data that reveals deep divides.

Mario Moussa and Derek Newberry are co-authors of the book, Committed Teams: Three Steps to Inspiring Passion and Performance. Moussa teaches in the Executive Programs at the Wharton School. Newberry is affiliated faculty in Organizational Dynamics at the University of Pennsylvania. Both are leadership development consultants.