You may be aware of The Dialogue Project, an initiative I founded in 2019 and announced at that year’s Page annual conference.  Today the program’s purpose remains the same as it was then: to explore how business can help reduce polarization and improve civil discourse in our society.  Last year, I was delighted to collaborate with the leadership at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business where the Dialogue Project is now in residence.  

We are actively creating new, important content valuable to both business leaders and business students.  Working with a great team at Duke — Fuqua Dean Bill Boulding, Ronnie Chatterji, Elizabeth Hogan, Daisy Lovelace, Sim Sitkin, Sanyin Siang and Mike Schoenfeld, in addition to long-time colleague Russ Yarrow — we recently hosted a program called “The Calculus of Engagement,” a deep dive into how companies strategically approach corporate engagement with contentious social issues. Moderated by Ronnie Chatterji, a Fuqua professor currently serving as the chief economist at the U.S. Department of Commerce, the discussion included Paul Argenti of the Tuck School of Business; Stacy Sharpe of Allstate and Juan Suarez of Southwest Airlines.

The one-hour discussion can be seen here. Some of the highlights:

  • Noting the rising expectations that stakeholders have for corporate activism on a variety of social issues, Chatterji asked each of the speakers to describe their strategic approach to corporate social engagement, or what we call the “calculus” of engagement. When should a company get involved? Should it even get involved at all? And if a company engages, how does it do so — through words, actions or both?
  • Argenti led the discussion with a framework for engagement that he recently published in a Harvard Business Review piece, “When Should Your Company Speak Up About a Social Issue?” Argenti’s framework helps business leaders evaluate when they should speak out, how they should prepare and position a response, whether they should engage alone or in partnership with other organizations and, crucially, whether they should speak out at all. “That we even talk about things like this . . . is something we didn’t even consider 30 years ago,” noted Argenti.
  • Sharpe, senior vice president for corporate relations at Allstate, noted that her company has a long history of corporate engagement on issues like driver safety and financial literacy, but that Allstate’s approach has evolved over time. The company now places a priority on issues where it believes it can affect systemic change, “not just where we can lend our voice."
  • Suarez, vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion at Southwest, said the company’s approach to social engagement has expanded from issues that directly impact the business to much broader societal issues. In the age of social media, Suarez noted, speed of response is critical and the company’s decision framework on social issues is now based on “speed, courage and consistency.”

It was clear from the discussion that the calculus of engagement is evolving into a strategic business discipline and companies like Allstate and Southwest are practicing this discipline with sophisticated and thoughtful approaches.

Given the high level of trust that global consumers have in business — which was quantified in the 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer — Dean Boulding noted that businesses are at a “pivotal point” where they may be able to “stem the tide” of polarization. Boulding also expanded on this idea in a recent and very compelling LinkedIn video post, “Now Is the Moment: What Business Leaders Should Do.”

We’re excited about this new partnership with Duke University and look forward to building a robust platform for dialogue, best practices, research and other tools — not only to help businesses navigate this new landscape, but also to help prepare the next generation of business leaders to successfully manage in the evolving stakeholder economy.