We’ve all had to work through politically tenuous times before, including during divisive presidential elections that pit co-workers against each other politically.
But these days, keeping disruptive politics out of the workplace feels more difficult than ever.
The contentious Supreme Court hearings of Brett Kavanaugh have touched an emotional nerve for many. The fallout has divided Americans even further in what was already a volatile political climate.
The media has been calling the potential fallout from these hearings “The Kavanaugh Effect.” As this recent Wall Street Journal piece details, the effect is evident in workplaces all across the country as Americans struggle to find common ground with each other across a political divide.
Employers that haven’t made an effort to get ahead of these emotional issues and their effect on employees may see productivity and morale suffer.
Allowing disruptive politics to take up too much space in the workplace can cause employees to feel alienated and unwelcome, which can send morale plummeting. In other cases, heated arguments in the break room or near the water cooler can disrupt operations and damage working relationships.
Here’s how employers can get ahead of these types of problems.
Don’t Settle for Silence
The conventional best practice when it comes to work and politics has been to keep them completely separate. Politics at work has been seen as a distraction that only stood to cause problems for your career and the workplace.
However, according to the Wall Street Journal, that division has been breaking down.
That’s because, in their words, “younger workers feel emboldened to demand that their employers reflect their view of the world and as people turn away from other outlets, such as church or social clubs, where such discussions once took place.”
We agree that the world is changing. Years ago, workers stayed in the same job for their entire careers, but today, change always seems imminent and current politics seem more likely to have an immediate impact on our lives.
Plus, in reality, keeping politics out of the workplace has never been a widely followed rule, and new communication tools that can keep co-workers (the people we see and interact with more than almost anyone else each day) in touch through various media at all hours of the day make avoiding all political topics all but impossible.
Finally, talking about important national issues, as long as it’s done right, can actually strengthen relationships and build better understanding.
As ELI founder Stephen Paskoff wrote in this column about discussing tragic news events at work:
“For some, the choice will be to avoid conversations for fear of saying something wrong. At best, that avoids potential conflict; at worst, it freezes the status quo locking in all perceptions, misperceptions, kind emotions and hardy resentments. Silence poses risks that nothing new will be understood, repaired or changed. What’s not addressed will be repeated.”
Welcome Opposing Viewpoints
So, the goal should not be zero conflict in your office. The goal should be healthy conflict.
After all, work-related opposing viewpoints and disagreements actually make businesses and organizations more competitive.
Lively conflicts can breed creativity and stimulate employees to look at things in new ways. (This is one big reason why diversity of all kinds within your workforce is a big benefit.)
When employees feel comfortable speaking their opinion and bringing their own unique perspective to the table — even when they’re in the minority — the employer enjoys a wider range of ideas, options, and specialized knowledge and experience.
When a workforce embraces healthy conflict, new initiatives are more likely to be fully vetted before they move forward because employees are willing to say something unpopular and bring possible problems to light.
In a culture where this kind of dissent is welcomed, political conflict can be handled in much the same way that a passionate disagreement about organizational strategy is handled. Employees are used to it, and they know that they can disagree without things devolving into toxic conflict that does serious damage to relationships. (Bonus: This kind of culture also tends to make employees feel more heard, more valued, more welcomed and more comfortable, which has its own cadre of business benefits.)
Building a culture that welcomes this kind of healthy conflict doesn’t happen overnight, of course, but you can start to build it by encouraging healthy communication behaviors and discouraging unhealthy ones.
Encourage These Good Communication Behaviors
Here are the best practices to adopt around political discussions with coworkers. (In fact, these strategies work for most conflicts, political and otherwise.)
Discussions must be mutual
No one wants to be lectured. A healthy conversation absolutely requires two willing participants. If you get any signal that someone doesn’t want to talk about political issues at work, respect their wishes.
Criticize ideas, not people
Obviously, insulting or patronizing someone is no way to make progress. When topics are emotional, the jump from frustration to name-calling happens quickly, but it cannot be tolerated in the workplace. Accusatory statements that start with “you” or “you people” generally end up in a personal attack. I statements, such as that ones that start out with a statement like “Here’s what I’ve noticed in my own life,” are much better received.
Anytime you’re discussing something serious, you should maintain eye contact, refrain from interrupting, and repeat or summarize the other person’s points to prove that you understand them. In these sensitive discussions, it’s particularly important for people to avoid negative body language like rolled eyes or grimaces. Those kinds of actions communicate clearly that you’re not actually interested in any opposing viewpoints.
Apologize, if necessary
With sensitive topics where emotions run high, it’s easy for the discussion to devolve into negativity. But a quick apology is usually all it takes to get things back on track.
Demand Accountability for Toxic Conflict
In many cases, relatively minor disagreements or arguments can turn into culture-corrupting, morale-busting conflicts over time.
Along with proactively trying to build a culture that encourages healthy conflict, leaders must hold employees accountable for the times where respectful communication practices are ignored.
If employees are allowed to insult opposing political parties, post or disseminate demeaning literature or cartoons, or just confront their colleagues in a way that makes people uncomfortable, it will completely undermine a culture of healthy conflict.
Good leaders need to be able to step into uncomfortable situations and clarify which behaviors will not be tolerated. Click To Tweet
Good leaders need to be able to step into these uncomfortable situations and get specific about what kind of behavior is expected and which will not be tolerated. Pointing out problematic behavior can be as simple as a statement like “We agreed as a team that all critical comments must be focused on the issue and never a person.”
Leaders must emphasize that it’s the job of each employee to call out when anyone on staff is being disrespectful, and that any complaints of disrespectful behavior will be welcomed and taken seriously.