Using Cultural Agility To Put An End To Political Gridlock

Standard & Poor’s recently served up real consequences of our national inability to communicate with each other. Don’t blame the Tea Party or Obama, though: Blame the Walkman. Innocuous as it may seem, it was the beginning of the era of personalized technology and content that led to us all living in individual, hermetically sealed information bubbles.

I was walking across my university campus 20 years ago when it hit me. My bulky Walkman was piping my favorite tunes through muff-like headphones when I noticed just how many other students were also plugged into their own music. We were ensconced in our own customized micro-environments with no need to interact with any sounds we hadn’t selected for ourselves, or even with each other. 


At that moment, I was filled with dread for a likely future when we would become alienated from each other by our personalized, parallel realities. Fast-forward tro today’s era of mass customization. More far-reaching than entertainment, the Internet delivers news to us that is automatically filtered for our individual preferences. As a result, we never need bump into a viewpoint that opposes our own.

I currently live in Northern California and travel regularly to the Southeast U.S. As I listened to conversations in each region during the recent debt-ceiling debacle, both the differences in opinion and similarities in attitude were jarring. Whether it was the doomed “Reid-Pelosi-Obama economy” or an unwavering devotion to Keynsian economics, everyone at the respective tables was in such vehement agreement that the other viewpoint was completely incomprehensible. The result across the board was the wholesale dismissal of the people holding the differing opinions as uninformed, stupid, or just plain nuts.

The United States has become fairly accustomed to this dismal state of affairs over the past two decades. We bemoan the viciousness and voracity of divisive politics, but we’ve lived with it because the ramifications have been mainly private. Then comes Standard & Poor’s to pop our own personal bubbles and deliver stinging payback for our political dysfunction: 

“The downgrade reflects our view that the effectiveness, stability, and predictability of American policymaking and political institutions have weakened at a time of ongoing fiscal and economic challenges to a degree more then we envisioned on April 18,2011.

Since then, we have changed our view of the difficulties in bridging the gulf between the political parties over fiscal policy, which makes us pessimistic about the capacity of Congress and the Administration to be able to leverage their agreement this week into a broader fiscal consolidation plan that stabilizes the government’s debt dynamics any time soon.”

– Standard and Poor’s on its decision to downgrade 

As the stock market absorbs Standard & Poor’s’ assessment with a minimum of long-term impact, it seems that this warning shot will whizz past our heads without actually affecting needed change. We’ve lost sight that, as Americans, we’re on the same team in pursuing a common good. Instead of a common vision we suffer “my way or the highway,” bare-knuckled culture wars.

The humble Walkman–and all the personalized technology and content that followed in its wake–helped spawn unshakable certainty of beliefs that are pervasive as culture. The result is a blossoming legislative intransigence that makes civility look as quaint and anachronsitic as the Victrola. 

The good news is that there is a way out of this quagmire. 


Globalism in business and services has led to increased cultural agility, the skill set used to foster productive working relationships among individuals from wildly different cultures. 

The Four “A’s” of Cultural Agility

Attitude is the first to address. We can improve relations between our political cultures within the U.S. by bringing cultural agility home. Of course, we have to want to have the desire to understand the other culture and work together in order to have a shot at being more culturally agile. 

Awareness comes next, namely self-awareness of our own biases. Political parties have their own identity and shared assumptions among members–-in other words, they have their own culture. Events like the debt ceiling reveal how we share a nationality but live in parallel political cultures. Belief in the superiority of one over the other is more a reflection of our personal culture bias than the idiocy of others.

Acquiring knowledge is the most common approach to cross-cultural training and can be well utilized to become more culturally agile even within our borders. If I had stayed in cozy Northern California during the debt ceiling debate, I would have remained far less aware of just how far apart our political cultures had driven. The more knowledge of why people believe what they do is a powerful tool toward being able to communicate with each other in a relevant manner.

Adaptability, with the goal of being understood, requires us to become comfortable with ambiguity and stretching our own flexibility. Compromise has become a dirty word in the current political lexicon. Politicians and citizens are digging in their heels to force black and white solutions, when listening and healthy compromise are needed to craft legitimate solutions to complex problems. The comfortable cocoon of certainty that mass customization creates most endangers adaptability.


It’s easy to join the chorus of the dissatisfied around the globe who are blaming U.S. politicians for a failure to lead. It’s harder to recognize that as Americans our political leaders are simply magnifying our own inabilities and dysfunctions in crafting a common vision for the future, led alone pursuing it effectively. 

Obama became in international phenomena due to a hyperbolic belief that a new leader could singlehandedly lead us into a new era. The reality is that the work to become more culturally agile is everyone’s. 

It’s time to unplug from the sweet music of smug agreement. We need to stretch ourselves as citizens by seeking out contrary opinions that make our hearts pound and heads spin. Even harder, when we engage with conflicting opinions it’s imperative to do this in order to seek to understand instead of to disprove or to demean. 

Standard & Poor’s offered us a wake-up call. Will we take our headphones off long enough to listen? 

[Image: FLickr user The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas]


About the author

Leaders rely on Michelle as an ally because she understands their world like no other consultant. Her clients call her their liferaft, because they have otherwise felt alone in a sea of people. As a senior executive, she was personally responsible for multimillion-dollar revenues; pioneered green business practices; and launched a breakthrough tablet device ten years before Apple introduced the iPad. Through her singular ability to recognize individual potential and bring it to fruition, Michelle’s clients include executives and their teams at Global Fortune 500s, high-potential companies, and non-profits, as well as members of the U.S