How to Unite a Divided People: 4 Keys to Leading in an Angry Era

So you’re leading a more divided group of people than you ever imagined. And you’re leading them in a very angry era.

Talk about complicated.

People have always been somewhat divided. But it’s never been this divided. And people have rarely been this angry.

The divisions have rarely been greater: political, economic, racial, geographic, ideological, theological and more.

If you think mask/anti-mask has been challenging, wait for vaccine/no-vaccine.

The future doesn’t show any signs of uniting people automatically. In fact, left unattended, the divisions will likely only grow deeper and wider.

One of the key tasks of leadership is to unite people around a common cause. That’s what leaders do.

A divided culture needs a united church.

A divided nation needs a united people.

That’s the role leaders play. And my guess is, deep down, you wish your church, organization or company was more united. And while leadership has always been hard, this particular moment makes it harder than ever.

So how do you do it?

Here are four principles that have helped me lead through division.

1. Start with the core, not the crowd

One of the challenges of leading in the 21st century is everyone makes their opinion known—usually publicly and  loudly.

As you scroll through your social media feed, you see person after person you lead posting memes, links and opinions about what they think on any given issue. Your stomach sinks as you realize you’re trying to lead all of them in a common direction.

To make it more complicated, you have a bajillion inboxes and everyone can message you any time on social or via email to let you know exactly what they think. And they do.

You can’t even watch Netflix with the kids without someone urging you to do whatever they’re passionate about in the moment.

Most of us feel a pull to try to unite everybody. Maybe a great social post, talk or sermon will do it. Or writing a manifesto of some kind.

And of course as soon as you say it out loud you realize that’s not going to work.

It’s really difficult to bring about unity from the fringes or in the crowd.

Instead, rather than trying to unite the crowd, start by uniting your core. You hear from the fringe, but you lead from the core.

The core of any organization is usually quite small. For me as a leader, that’s usually been my senior staff and my board.

No matter how large (or small) your organization is, unity at the top has a way of filtering through the entire organization.

The good news is uniting your core—which is usually no more than 10-12 people, is remarkably easier than trying to unite the crowd.

Using the principles below on your key team will not only help unite them, but the people you lead will sense the unity of mission and purpose.

Think about it in family terms. You can break up a fight between the kids for a few minutes, but if you and your spouse are constantly arguing, it makes it hard to bring peace to the home.

When you’re in a good place as a couple—on the same page, united and you have each other’s backs—bringing peace in the family is so much easier.

United at the top, united at the bottom. Divided at the top, divided at the bottom.

Unity spreads. So does division.

2. Do the Math

So what about that crowd? You might have a united core, but what about everyone else?

Opponents fill your inbox and social media with angry messages, often writing in ALL CAPS because they’ve got it figured out (while you and the rest of the world don’t).

Those messages rattle me the same way they rattle you. I can get 100 kind messages and words of encouragement and one nasty message. For days, all I think about is the angry comment.

That’s why math is your best friend when it comes to navigating the future.

The opponents claim to speak for ‘everyone’ and they’re louder than anyone.

Which naturally leads you and me into the trap too many leaders fall into: you mistake loud for large.

Don’t mistake loud for large. Almost always, the angry voices represent a small part of the overall group you’re leading.

I’m not saying you don’t need to listen and learn, or that you’re always right and they’re always wrong. I am saying don’t let a minority of angry voices sabotage your future.

When it comes to change or charting the path forward, I am saying that generally speaking, human dynamics look something like this.

10% are opposed and loud (Opponents)

10% are audibly supportive and eager (Early Adopters)

30% are quietly supportive (Early Majority)

50% are quiet and neutral (Quiet Majority)

In other words, only 10% are typically opposed to the change you’re proposing.

Which means 90% aren’t.

Take the math a step further. Let’s say you have 100 people in your church or organization and you live in a small town of 10,000.

The angry opponents represent 10% of the people you lead, but they’re only .001% of the community you’re trying to reach.

Are you seriously going to let .001% of your community hold the future hostage?  Are you going to sacrifice the 99.99% of people who will eventually embrace good change for the sake of the .001% who won’t?  Didn’t think so.

If you’re thinking that your community is completely different and way more divided, I’ve written a lot more about leading change in the face of opposition here. Hope it helps!

And there’s your courage.  Now go change.

3. Focus on what you agree on

A few further tips to deescalate the tension and build unity.

After all, there is so much that divides us right now. That stuff’s real. But...and don’t miss this.there are far more things that unite us.

To lead effectively in a time of division, focus on what unites the people you lead, not on what divides them

How do you do that? Well, start with some very basic things. At the core, we all have our common humanity.

We’re all people trying to do our best with fears, hopes, dreams, insecurities, needs and people we love. That’s a LOT of common ground.

You also have your mission. I find the more I rally my current team around our mission to help people thrive in life and leadership, the closer our team gets and the more effective we become.

For decades as a pastor in the church, I rallied people around what we agreed on about Jesus, and our common mission to lead people into a growing relationship with Jesus. That unites people who might typically not gather together under a very powerful core cause.

Want to break it down really simply? Instead of asking someone what they think about politics, ask them how their kids are—how they are, what they dream about, what they’re struggling with, what they need.

You’ll find far more common ground than you imagine.

Focusing on what unites you, not on what divides you, is not just a great way to build unity. It’s a great way to move into the future together.

4. Explain the why twice as much (or 10x as much) as the what and the how

In good times and bad times, your job as a leader is to remind everyone why you’re doing this in the first place. Every day. Multiple times a day. Almost as often as you open your mouth or type into your phone.

I also realize the leadership can get so discouraging and functional that you need to remind yourself why.

Primarily, leadership consists of answering three questions: why, what and how.

What and how dominate unless you ensure they don’t.

  • What are we going to do?
  • How are we going to do it?
  • How much is going to cost? 
  • What about these other ideas?

It’s so easy to get trapped in tactical questions like this, and while they matter and ultimately have to be answered, questions like this surface multiple opinions and can easily lead to division unless handled skillfully.

That’s why why is your best friend.

Of the three main questions leaders deal with—why, what and how—only why unites.

How and what divide, while why unites (we’re all here to reach people).

The challenge is that when things are fractious, people always want to talk about what and how.  Hence the endless debates about whether to open/reopen, masks, distancing, online, vaccines etc.

That’s when the best thing you can do as a leader is pull the conversation back and elevate it to the level of mission.

That sounds something like:

  • Let’s think for a few minutes about why we started the church. 
  • Everyone take a minute and pray for someone you know and care about that we’re trying to reach. 
  • One of the best things about this place is your deep commitment to Christ and reaching people.
  • What’s one of the greatest things you hope God will do over these next few months?

In a business setting it sounds something like this:

  • Let’s think for a few minutes about why we started this company. 
  • Everyone take a minute and think about something you believe our company could help. 
  • One of the best things about this place is your deep commitment to our values and mission.
  • What’s one of the greatest things you hope we can do together over these next few months?

See the power of why?

A good rule is to talk about why twice as much as you do what and how.  In a crisis, you may want to double or triple that ratio. Or 10x it.

How Are You Forging Unity?

This is a hard season, but the difference you’re making is probably bigger than you realize right now.

What are you doing to try to forge unity right now?

What’s working? What’s not?

I’d love to hear from you in the comments!

How to Unite a Divided People: 4 Keys to Leading in an Angry Era

26 Comments

  1. Larry DeWayne Wilson on January 21, 2021 at 12:31 pm

    GREAT THOUGHTS Carey. I appreciate your encouraging work.

  2. Scott Cyre on December 2, 2020 at 8:51 pm

    It occurs to me reading Philippians 1:37 – Philippians 2:18 that unity is the goal of Paul’s text. He reminds the Philippians that unity (in the face of adversity) is achieved through selflessness. The kind of selflessness that requires emptying oneself of whatever they feel they are entitled to and lower themselves underneath everyone else. “Deity was not a thing to be grasped.”

    If a small group of leaders can continually empty themselves for each other, spreading unity becomes a lot easier. Thanks for the word.

  3. Typhoon TV Apk on November 30, 2020 at 10:22 pm

    Thank you for sharing article and information. this is very helpful for beginner.

    • Rachel on January 16, 2021 at 12:16 pm

      Thank you for the article! I did a quick search on uniting people because I have a new project at work that involves bringing some groups who are very passionate (and different) about their opinions together. This is very helpful!

  4. Mark Kellerman on November 27, 2020 at 9:18 am

    Thanks, needed this today.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on November 29, 2020 at 5:29 am

      So glad it helped Mark!

  5. Mark Kellerman on November 27, 2020 at 9:16 am

    Needed this today. Thanks.

  6. Nick Cokas on November 25, 2020 at 6:55 pm

    I am a bit confused as to why there is so much division? What is going on the rest of the year that suddenly there is division and anger within these communities? I have worked in the business world as well as the Christian world for the past 25 years. If a community is divided, it usually comes down to leadership. Regardless of circumstances if there are that many divided people within an organization maybe the entire leadership should be reconsidered. It happens all the time in the real world.
    In fact in my experience, the “faith” world leadership is less apt to listen and more apt to dictate – One of the reasons there seem to be revolving doors when it comes to communities of faith. Front door vs back door.
    I love the community – the church – the body. I heard it once said, “I try and guide people to be more like Christ and less like Christians.” And, is division always a bad thing? Hmmmm?

    • Mark on November 26, 2020 at 12:34 pm

      Sadly too many people bought in to what I see spewed on social media by people who should not be allowed to incite hate and violence. Clergy started taking sides against people to keep other people happy. Leaders did the same thing. Pitiful. Those in the middle caught it from both sides.

  7. Xander d. on November 25, 2020 at 2:26 pm

    Core and Fringe. Pastoring means keeping your finger on the pulse of the community for those that are at its’ centre, as well as tracking with those that start and those that stop attending. Know who is leaving and why, and knowing who is beginning to come and why really helps recognize what narrative and priorities matter and work, and which dont. It also helps integration and communication around ministry priorities.
    Nowhere is your unity or disunity more obvious than in the Core and the Fringe.

  8. Sandra Nelson on November 25, 2020 at 2:20 pm

    This is really good for growth in clarity. Navigating what’s really important to bring people together. Togetherness in peace and in a peaceful environment Thank you

  9. Sam on November 25, 2020 at 12:37 pm

    Your post has always been a blessing.. More grace….and more wisdom

    • Carey Nieuwhof on November 26, 2020 at 5:37 am

      Thanks Sam!

  10. Tyler on November 25, 2020 at 12:31 pm

    This is so helpful and encouraging. We planted our church last October. As if Church planting isn’t hard enough, add to it the pandemic and consistent division. I can see how easy it is for people to reduce someone to a position when we’re disconnected from them. I’m seeing the desperate need for increased vision and focus on what matters most. Not easy, but certainly worth every second. Thanks so much for this – I needed it.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on November 26, 2020 at 5:37 am

      Tyler you’re so right. There’s never a season where people don’t need vision, but at launch it’s especially critical. At launch in this environment you can double that.

  11. David J Byler on November 25, 2020 at 12:02 pm

    I have so appreciated this post and listening to your podcast since my brother recommended you last spring. I have listened to old episodes more days than not since then. Anyway, keep up the good work. One correction on this post, and I could not find a way to send this privately, so if you want to read, correct, and delete this comment that is fine with me. When you say, “Do the math,” but the get the math wrong, probably most people won’t notice, but 10 out of 10,000 is 0.1% rather that .001%. It is .001 of the population but only 0.1%. The point is well made that it is a very small fraction of the population, just not quite the right math. Thanks for all you do.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on November 26, 2020 at 5:36 am

      David…so glad to hear the podcast has helped you. And thanks for the encouragement and the more accurate math. I really appreciate it and will make the change.

  12. Ron Beed on November 25, 2020 at 11:49 am

    In addition to a very good article it also had the effect of helping me to quietly focus on a path forward, especially helpful in these tangled, confusing times.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on November 26, 2020 at 5:35 am

      So glad to hear this Ron!

  13. Gary Grogan on November 25, 2020 at 9:48 am

    Excellent and timely post, thank you!

    • Jamison Horton on November 25, 2020 at 10:32 am

      So powerful! Asking how people are doing, how is the family, what are you struggling with the most? Great questions, instead of what do you think about politics!
      Also, doubling down on the why is HUGE!!! I know for me and my team, we want the how and what, but I have lead with the why.

      • Carey Nieuwhof on November 26, 2020 at 5:35 am

        Totally Jamison. Why almost always wins.

  14. Rosemary on November 25, 2020 at 9:21 am

    To forge unity we’re feeding people. Hunger is a basic need. When we hear someone is sick, quarantined, or their mental health is defeated or angry we leave a porch drop meal or goodie bag and a scripture of encouragement.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on November 25, 2020 at 9:40 am

      This is wonderful. And that’s completely unifying.

  15. Mark on November 25, 2020 at 9:02 am

    I have heard many priests lately say that G-d is bigger than partisan politics and belongs to no party. Clergy if they have any sense are saying there is room for everyone and calling on their members to behave online and act civil towards one another. Only a few clergy want people from the opposite political persuasion put out of the church and even they were recently called down by their ecclesiastical superiors. What did Micah the prophet say? Do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with G-d.

    • God on November 25, 2020 at 5:16 pm

      God

Leave a Comment





This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.