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When I don’t get enough sleep I find myself the next day in meetings using big words, sometimes without being entirely sure whether they are being used in the right context. An example this week was when I was making a point about us all needing to agree and understand one another and I surprised myself by saying we need a ‘lingua franca’. I’d like to put this down to an amazing IQ but actually we grew up in a family without television. At the time I thought my parents were Luddites. Now I think of them as really radical. To keep ourselves occupied we read books and listened to the wireless. You are entirely wasting your time talking Hogan’s Heroes or Gilligan’s Island with me. Want to talk the Goon Show though – that’s a whole different kettle of fish.

I love the term ‘lingua franca’ – it sounds like you are smart when you say it and it rolls in the mouth like a melting lolly. That got me in reflective mode. We actually do need a lingua franca in business and in the world at the moment. I think many manager’s agree. Where the disagreement is, much to the chagrin of Lucy Kellaway (of AFR and Financial Times fame), in what form this common language should be. At times I despair when it clichéd and vacuous words that are trotted out masking true authenticity. More despairingly I find they slip into my vernacular from time to time.

The world it seems right now is desperately in need of a lingua franca. We desperately need understanding, harmony, forgiveness and peace. The world’s a mess and it’s getting messier. Possibly because I’m betting older and view it through a different prism, but we are getting more and more divided. Whereas once we might look for what unites (a kind of lingua franca) now we seem to focus with laser precision on what separates. Let me give you a list of some of the real areas of disagreement which I think are becoming deep-seated fissures or schisms in society today.

  • The rich v the poor (or as I have heard it referred to as the haves and have yachts);
  • Moderates v Hardliners in the recent elections in Iran for example;
  • North Korea v South Korea;
  • Sunni v Shia;
  • Ideologue v pragmatist;
  • Conservative v progressive;
  • Pro-life v women’s choice;
  • Nerd v hipster;
  • Muslim v kufir/infidel;
  • Science v intuition;
  • Religion v atheism;
  • Evolutionists v creationists;
  • Republicans v Democrats;
  • Pro v anti-gay marriage;
  • Greenie v climate change denier;
  • Japan v Sea Shepherd; and
  • Union v Employer.

And the list goes on….you get the picture.

What is the reason for this ever widening gap? For me it’s a growing intolerance arising from an arrogance in one’s own deeply help position or conviction. And I partly blame TV for that. Secondarily I blame the world of academia and the increased specialisation of knowledge. Whereas once upon a time you might see an eye specialist for a problem with your eyes, nowadays the specialist may only be a specialist in 2mm of a certain part of your retina. Let me draw these threads together. The 24/7 news cycle exists on a diet of:

  • breaking news e.g. bomb blast in Yemen kills 50 people;
  • in depth reporting from a war zone e.g. background piece on the devastation caused by bombing in Sanaa;
  • updates; e.g. reporter to reporter update e.g. ceasefire talks with anchor interviewing in situ or imbedded reporter
  • analysis where the anchor speaks to an expert; and
  • panel discussion where a panel of experts, most often moderated by a journalist, discusses an issue.

It is the last two I believe are causing the problem. It is critical for the news services that the ‘expert’ they have on has the gravitas to carry the day. They have to have a body of knowledge and be recognised for their background, expertise and experience in the field of discussion. When the viewer ascribes this ‘expert’ status upon them the news service has its credibility boosted off the back of this. It’s a symbiotic relationship. We, the public, then get ‘educated’ in the issue and form an opinion. We know from the world of psychology that once this perspective has been imprinted it becomes very difficult to subsequently disabuse the person of their first formed beliefs even if fixed from a soundbite interview.

The Archbishop of Cantebury Rowan Williams and atheist scholar Richard Dawkins pose for a photograph outside Clarendon House at Oxford University


Those who have read/watched any Christopher Hitchens (God is Not Great) or read/watched Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion) will appreciate how what should be polite disagreement between people about the existence of God, is a highly volatile and emotionally charged diatribe where the views of one party are forced down the throat of the other. It’s as though where reason cannot prevail brute force of argument might. It seems contradictory to me that the religious who believe in peace and ‘turning the other cheek’ engage in such nonsense and the atheists with their humanist underpinnings also engage in the very same thing.

Climate change is another issue where the degree of intolerance between parties of differently held beliefs is ever widening. Tolerance is going out the window as each diametrically opposed group, with wild overtones of exasperation and disbelief, throw rocks at each other. No-where is this seen more frequently than on TV between acknowledged (or perhaps more correctly alleged) experts. The frisson required to keep viewers almost always requires a diametrically opposed couple or group of experts. Not only does this make for titillating TV but it can be disguised under the pretence of providing balance.

In life, as in management, we mimic and mirror behaviours. If the so-called experts are at each other’s throats then what’s wrong with us doing this? The strident nature of the arguments presented get internalised and memorized because just parroting back the argument (in all its sound-bite beauty) is a lot easier than using Google or a library to do further research. Sure, use the interview to posit a hypothesis, but we should at least get off the couch and prove or disprove it with research, reflection and intuition. That’s the first thing. The second important point is that the experts despite seemingly being ‘experts’ may not be what they say. Being on TV does not afford them any extra credibility than seeing a product with the ‘As seen on TV” label on the box. The age-old adage of ‘just because they say it’s so doesn’t mean it is so’ holds up against the test of time.

I always reflect that these panellists, or experts, are often referred to as commentators. When listening to horse racing commentators as a child I was sure that who they said came first, second and third was almost always right, except when it was a photo finish and sometimes, not often, the horse they called first did not get the Stewards’ nod. So it is with current affairs commentators. They are opinion expressers with some background in the issues at best. With so many of them out there they often will raise their voices to get heard. When on a panel, especially on Fox (Sky) this seems to come to the fore more often than not.


It doesn’t have to be like this. Just imagine a panel discussion where each panellist quietly and politely disagreed with the other party and then each started talking using a lingua franca on the issues upon which they do agree. Probably wouldn’t get great ratings though. With looming elections in the US with the deeply divisive Trump and Clinton we can expect a diet of raucous and irrational expert panels. With an election looming in Australia we can regrettably expect the same.

It’s important we find common ground in life and especially in the workplace. Diversity is an important aspect of a balanced organisation and this means hiring people of differing views. The respectful acknowledgement of others’ views to create overall harmony is important too. This is where for many young adults they learn their first lessons in tolerance. At school if you don’t agree with someone you drift to a different social group – normally one that is aligned to your perspective. The need to maintain employment and income is often a driver to keep people in the workplace where they are not entirely aligned to the prevailing views. To make this work the members within that organisation need to be tolerant and reach out and connect on the issues they have in common.

When we think about it we have so much more in common than the things we don’t agree on. Our DNA sees to that as Dawkins would say. Let’s look to those things that bind us and that we can agree on…hey everyone what’s on telly tonight?