It is possible – just possible – that 2010 will go down as “the year of pluralism”. Now that is not a phrase that is exactly over-familiar, or even instantly understandable. But I am referring, in the first instance, to the ongoing experiment in coalition government that has been in place in Britain since May this year.
Whatever your own political preferences, you cannot deny that we have been taught a few lessons, and shown that new ways of working are possible, even in the most hidebound of environments.Until election day on 6 May, the three main political parties were metaphorically at each other’s throats. Then came the inconclusive result, thrown up by that most inconvenient and unpredictable element, the electorate. Suddenly the sworn enemies found that they had to talk to each other. And – guess what? – they discovered that it was possible after all. They could even agree on certain contentious matters, or at least agree to disagree.
Coalition government has forced the media to grow up, too. In the past, if one cabinet minister differed only very slightly from the point of view of another, Westminster journalists could run off and tell one of their favourite stories: “The cabinet is split!”
But in a cabinet containing both Vince Cable and George Osborne, for example, it is ludicrous to expect cabinet ministers to agree about everything all the time. And so the media has had to dampen down its hysteria, just a little.
A more sober truth has been revealed: that all political parties are, like businesses, coalitions of different interests, and that people within them have to learn how to work together.
And that is really the key lesson of this year of pluralism. We do have to work together. We do have to get along. And we do have to accept that other people can have their own sincerely held points of view. It doesn’t necessarily make them wrong. It certainly doesn’t make them wicked.
How should business people adopt this new-found pluralism and introduce it into their own working life? Fundamentally, it means that the old-style confrontational, lose-lose approach has to be reconsidered. Pluralism means partnership. It means give and take. It also means focusing on bigger long-term objectives – such as both you and your key suppliers staying in business – rather than trying to score a quick win which kicks your partner where it hurts.
Pluralism will not come naturally to business leaders who have built marvellous careers on the back of muscular individualism. Indeed, there will be some workplaces where ‘dog eat dog’ still seems like the best idea. But as we all crank up to make even deeper cuts in 2011 – the Royal Mail is just the latest big organisation to apparently come down hard on suppliers – we might just consider the former bitter rivals now trying to run the country. Neither the Tories nor the Liberal Democrats are getting exactly what they want. Each is having to put up with a lot. But mutual suspicion has been put to one side – mainly. They are acting like grown-ups (another first for Westminster). If they can do it, why can’t the rest of us? Give pluralism a try. You have nothing to lose but that frown.