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Professors Rick Larrick, Debu Purohit, and Feldman in conversation at the Fuqua School of Business
Professors Rick Larrick, Debu Purohit, and Feldman in conversation at the Fuqua School of Business Photo by Les Todd

Disagreeing Respectfully Makes Us Stronger

Duke’s Dialogue Project Wants Business to Lead That Conversation, For Our Common Good

Could business play a role in pushing us all to more civil discourse?

Bob Feldman thinks so. And while some may argue that polarization in this era has kept us from talking — and yes, disagreeing, thoughtfully — this communication executive believes that U.S. corporations and their leaders can point us to a place where divergent thinking and a marketplace of ideas can thrive.

Feldman, a longtime prominent executive in the communications field, brought The Dialogue Project to Duke’s Fuqua School of Business after creating it in 2019. He thought an academic home at a premier business school would be a strong place to nurture such learning, partnering with professors who are interested in this research as well as high-level CEOs who have visited campus to stir the discussion.

Feldman said the idea for the project came to him as he prepared an important speech for a group of his peers. As he thought about leaving them with something significant, he pondered the current climate of division in our country that some contend has been fueled, among many reasons, by social media and a political climate run amok.

He also looked at research that found that corporations were now seen as our most trustworthy institutions. If companies were viewed in a favorable light, then perhaps training business students and working with corporations on fostering such a dialogue program might just go a long way to reversing our current path where outrage seems to have sown deep divisions.

Fuqua Dean Bill Boulding says The Dialogue Project, which continues to evolve as a long-term initiative at Duke, is a perfect fit for what his school represents. In talking about the idea, he quotes Yeats: “Talent perceives differences; genius, unity.”

“We need more geniuses,” Boulding said, noting that his focus with the project is simple — to do better and empower his business students to chart that course.

Faculty at Duke have been enthusiastic about the project. Spearheading the effort are Professors Ronnie Chatterji and Sim Sitkin, and Associate Professor Daisy Lovelace. The Fuqua/Coach K Center on Leadership and Ethics has also engaged around this work, which has ignited common purpose in the academic and corporate worlds.

CEOs and leaders from several companies such as Allstate, Google, Bristol Myers Squibb, Chevron, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Southwest Airlines, Pfizer, Walmart, Johnson & Johnson and JPMorgan Chase have also engaged.

“Everyone likes this idea of can we take action that will improve discourse and give us opportunities to learn and to do better,” Boulding said. “This is striking a chord with business leaders because they see a society that is so fractured, and they know we can do better.”

Boulding sees real issues in the business world, some of them making headlines, that ultimately create teachable moments for students, particularly around the value of creating a diverse team whose different ideas at the table ultimately make it greater — and stronger. He also notes the lack of research in this area, which creates opportunities for his faculty to study where we are and how to take action to reduce polarization.

He said: “We believe business can be a force for positive change in the world.” 

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