Business Leadership, Presidential Politics and Social Engagement: Choose Carefully

The GOP convention illuminated - and the Democratic convention will too, the sad binary bromides of the class rivalry of an 'Us' vs. 'Them' mentality. It threatens the country's ability to continue to make social progress on a number fronts - from fighting poverty, social injustice and gender and race bias to improving the lives of those who lack proper health care and educational opportunities. Business executives take note: This will have serious implications in what your organization does on the social engagement front at a time when Americans increasingly expect CEOs and their companies to participate actively on important social issues.

In a recent study, Dr. Chatterji and Michael Toffel of Harvard Business School discovered that people were more likely to oppose Indiana's religious-freedom law passed last year once they found that Apple Inc. CEO Tim Cook opposed it. Apple's support seemed to boost business, too: Consumers were more inclined to buy Apple products once they learned of Mr. Cook's position on the issue, the researchers found.

While some companies are bold enough that the stands they take on controversial issues can withstand concentrated attacks from detractors, the challenge for most businesses desiring to do more on the social front comes in the analytics on the consequences of taking a stance. Starbucks addressed race relations at its 11,000-plus stores in March 2015 by having baristas write the words Race Together on cups in a move to spark conversation among customers about race in the U.S. It sparked an Internet backlash but the company, to its credit, stood by its program.

In May, Target Stores told the American Family Association not to expect changes in its policy to allow transgender men to use women's bathrooms and changing rooms in its stores, despite the group's launch of a boycott against the retail chain. And CVS was willing to lose considerable revenue after it stopped selling cigarettes in its stores in 2014, but that change has had public health benefits.

Many other businesses must tread more carefully because these days, it's unclear what support for (or against) their stance on a pressing social issue will trigger. Many of them are still putting their toes in the water and aren't eager for a full-out attack against their public stance on a social issue, either from customers or shareholders. Earlier this year, an Australian telecommunications company that supported marriage equality, bowed to pressure from the Catholic Church and retreated from its publicly supportive stance, only then to renew its active support following backlash from the public and its customers.

What's the answer? Companies and their leaders must begin to develop deep and extensive social listening talents to ensure they understand divisive values, financial implications of a stance and even the next probable shoe to drop in a controversy. This exercise must be as rigorous as that which companies follow in introducing a new product. But it must be more qualitative.

Corporate leaders must grasp that their organizations need people who understand how to analyze and interpret data, who think in multidimensional terms and possess experiential intelligence. Organizations must develop new categories of experts who know the communities they serve, the implications of adopting certain social policies and provide diversity of counsel. They also must consider hiring more classically trained researchers who also understand the importance of social listening.

Who knows what the upshot of the 'Us' vs. 'Them' cascade will lead. But it shouldn't be that companies shy away from participating actively on important social issues - whether it relates to climate change, marriage equality, race relations, gun violence, immigration, health care, tax policy or genetically modified organisms. This is where the power of social listening is can guide progress.