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Perceptual Polarization

Americans have become more atomized by education, income, and political leanings.  That polarization has meant sharply increased antipathy toward people with different beliefs.

Annie Lowrey



Debates around social and political issues are increasingly unavoidable, especially as social media platforms allow people to make their views public.  This has increased the pressure on business leaders to weigh in and has given them the opportunity for them to do so.

Social polarization can be defined in many ways, but a helpful definition for understanding the phenomenon and its effects is “a lack of overlap of individuals’ beliefs or traits across different groups.” This can, in many cases, also lead to a lack of intergroup communication, shared perceptions, and positive sentiment.


One of my favorite studies was an evaluation of university professors who thought they were in the top half of their field of study.  Over 95% thought they were in the top half.  Clearly, their perception was not even close to reality.

While we perceive that we are a polarized nation, and we are, what we don’t know is the extent we are polarized.  Studies and polls have accumulated data on how polarized we are, but this information does not correspond to the “boots on the ground” feel of how polarized we are


This is not a political blog by any stretch, but looking at politics is an excellent example of our perceptual polarization.

In a study titled the Perception Gap, the public estimated that 55% of Republicans and Democrats hold extreme views compared to the other party.  Actual polling numbers are 30%.  So, reality is just over half of what we assume.

Throughout this study, their perceptions of what people assumed to be true were widely distorted from what the actual data showed.

In Business

This study is relevant for business leaders and entrepreneurs.

First, we need to address polarization in our workspaces.  All workspaces are polarized to some extent.  As the saying goes, “We may bowl alone, but we still work together” (in reference to Robert Putnam’s watershed book “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community”).

Each day, we engage with colleagues who don’t necessarily share our social and political views to complete a common mission, creating positive connections across lines of difference that may not exist in broader society.  This is a valuable and major source of social cohesion in its own right.

And business leaders must facilitate that cohesiveness.

Second, business leaders and entrepreneurs must acknowledge the perception gaps in our thinking.

We cannot entirely rely on our own judgment.  All our thoughts and ideas are tainted with perceptions and attitudes accumulated in our minds over our careers.  For example, how a manager in the twilight of an excellent career perceives the value of technology will be vastly different from a recent college graduate.

Managers and leaders must act humbly to overcome these perceptions and ask for others’ insights.  Successful businesspeople have always relied on listening to others and taking their good ideas to implement them.  Likewise, the opinions of other trusted staff members must be sought and used when setting budgets, considering employment opportunities, making strategic changes, and many more critical business functions.

The Bible

The closer we can get reality to perception, the better our chances of success.

The actual truth is that reality could care less about our perceptions and does not adapt to accommodate varying viewpoints.

We may feel entitled to our own truth, but eventually, it will clash with the actual truth.  For example, consider a pilot whose visual perception of the horizontal plane is impaired; if he continues to make a decision based on his faulty perception of where the horizon is, he will crash.  That is why pilots are given objective data to know the actual truth and make course corrections.

Matthew 16:13-17 says,

When Jesus arrived in the villages of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “What are people saying about who the Son of Man is?”

They replied, “Some think he is John the Baptizer, some say Elijah, some Jeremiah or one of the other prophets.”

 He pressed them, “And how about you?  Who do you say I am?”

 Simon Peter said, “You’re the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

Jesus came back, “God bless you, Simon, son of Jonah!  You didn’t get that answer out of books or from teachers.  My Father in heaven, God himself, let you in on this secret of who I really am.

Jesus was interceding in the perception gap of who the disciples thought He was.  And He quickly discerned that this gap could not be filled by earthy knowledge but by God alone.

The same is true for business leaders; we need to rely on God to provide the truths we are to believe.  And then, it is for the business leaders to act on these truths —  because our workplaces are the last frontier where we can cross perception lines and achieve common goals.