I don’t need to tell anyone that sometimes people with–shall we say strong political views?–have difficulty communicating below the 100 decibel level, especially on social media. Navigating the office and social media environment in the age of the 24 hour news cycle while maintaining your sanity and your friendships is not as easy as it once was.
But it should be. It’s not that you shouldn’t have opinions, it’s just that it’s not always necessary to share your opinions. It’s important to know when to speak, to whom, and on what subject. To that end, and as a public service, I’ve developed a set of “rules” to guide online and office behavior.
Before I get into the “rules” I’d like to take a moment to quote Founding Father James Madison’s Federalist 10 on the virtue of republican democratic government for resolving the inevitable “faction” that develops among people attempting to govern themselves. I also want to point out that when Madison refers to “republicans,” he’s referring to the idea of a republic as a form of government not the political party by the same name.
In the extent and proper structure of the Union, therefore, we behold a republican remedy for the diseases most incident to republican government. And according to the degree of pleasure and pride we feel in being republicans, ought to be our zeal in cherishing the spirit and supporting the character of Federalists.
– Madison, Federalist #10
The Federalist Papers are a collection of what we’d call today blog posts that made the case for the form of government we have today in the USA. In Federalist 10, Madison writing under the pen name Publius described both the inevitability of developing “factions” among people, and the virtue of a “republic” over a pure “democracy,” and offered a remedy for moderating the passions of the day. It’s worth the read, for sure, and is a great reminder to be optimistic about our country’s ability to work through issues and (eventually) reach a solution. You might not know it sometimes, and the Civil War notwithstanding, but Americans have a remarkable resilience and ability to solve problems peacefully, although usually loudly. OK, end of preamble, now on to the rules.
1. All humans deserve to be treated with respect. Someone else’s lack of respect doesn’t justify you doing the same.
When someone is being disrespectful or rude the natural reaction is to return fire and as we say in the military, “establish fire superiority.” Resist the urge–either remove yourself from the situation or return rudeness with kindness. Trust me, it’s a far better place to be. You might feel good in the moment by “winning” but in business and in life relationship is not about “winning” or “losing,” but rather about mutual respect.
2. Public figures are humans, not messiahs and not devils.
It’s very important to remember the people we see on TV are, you know, actual people. They have virtues and flaws, friends and family who love them, and their own thoughts. They make mistakes. They do good work. Public pronouncements and actions are fair game for discussion or disagreement, but be careful to separate criticism or praise of an action from criticism or praise of the person. Always give people the benefit of the doubt. We’re always free judge a person’s actions, but we’re not to judge a soul–leave that to God.
3. If you’re partisan before you’re a patriot you are part of the problem.
The good of the country should always be a primary consideration, and we should always be ready to change our minds if presented with enough facts, so long as we don’t violate our values.
4. The first report is usually wrong; remember the real work of politics gets done in committee and in board rooms, rarely in public.
This is also one of “Mickey’s Rules for Leaders,” and it applies to political discussions as well. Remember that just because someone told you something is true, or you saw it reported a certain way on your favorite news outlet, doesn’t necessarily mean you have the whole story. Avoid rushing to judgement.
5. Always check multiple primary sources before believing and passing on a link, no matter what the source and especially if it seems to confirm something you believe.
Avoid taking someone else’s word for something; seek out primary (original) sources of information. Modern search engines online allow you to read what a person actually said and in context. If a particular report seems to confirm something you think you know already, be doubly skeptical.
6. Data doesn’t care who you are. (Corollary: if you torture the numbers long enough they’ll confess to anything).
Data is data, and there’s as many ways to parse numbers as there are to count. Be open to changing your mind when presented with facts, rather than dismissing data simply because someone with an opposing ideology presents it to you.
7. I never learned anything while I was talking.
Listen first, second, and even third. Then speak. This is harder than it sounds.
8. Being “pro” something isn’t necessarily the same as being “anti” something.
Remember that being for something isn’t the same thing as being against something else. Begin by assuming the best about someone and asking questions, like “Did you mean to say…?” You might be surprised at the common ground you have with someone you might have thought was your polar opposite. Not always, but often we merely disagree on method, and agree on goals.
9. Insulting people guarantees they’ll ignore you.
Strong language is generally a bad idea. If you’re looking to severe a relationship, that’s the quickest way to do it. There’s a reason it’s polite to use gentle language. I think us moderns have become far too comfortable throwing verbal bombs and profanity. Again, the benefit of the doubt and a little kindness goes a long way.
10. No one changes their mind based on your political Facebook post.
Frankly, I generally avoid political discussions altogether, especially online. I do this not only because as an officer I respect our institutions and our military apolitical tradition, but because people need space to believe what they want and change their minds if they like. The greatest voice we have is a vote, no one is going to change their minds based on your ten-links per day from “MyPoliticalOpinionIsRighteousAndYoursIsEvil.com.”
Remember, we’re all in this together!
Mickey believes everyone can reach high levels of performance if inspired and led. During his 30 year US Air Force career Mickey commanded thousands of Airmen, managed portfolios worth billions of dollars, and worked with military, civil, and industry officials around the world. He is a Distinguished Graduate from the Eisenhower School at National Defense University in Washington DC.
Mickey is the author of seven books, including Leading Leaders: Inspiring, Empowering, and Motivating Teams, Mickey’s Rules for Leaders, and The 5 Be’s For Starting Out. He’s a frequent contributor to industry publications and writes for his own blog and GeneralLeadership.com.