Navigating Political Differences in the Workplace

While politics has long been a hot button topic, political divisiveness has many people feeling extra hot under the collar these days.

Conversations about politics inevitably make their way into the workplace, which can spike tensions between colleagues with opposing points of view. As a leader, you’re responsible for ensuring a safe workplace environment for your entire team, regardless of political leanings. What are some best practices for dealing with divisive politics in the workplace and how can you guide these conversations back to safety when they veer off the rails?

In a recent digital article for HBR , Rebecca Knight polled leadership experts and management researchers for some tips on how to maintain a respectful and functional workplace even when political views clash. Here are some highlights:

Don’t ban political discourse in the office

It’s tempting to want to nix political chitchat in the workplace, but it’s simply unrealistic. People spend a large chunk of their time at work and are bombarded with the latest political news throughout the workday. Inevitably, politics will find its way into the water cooler or instant message chatter.

Adopting a “see/hear/speak-no-evil” approach may have unintended negative impacts as well. According to Emily Gregory, a leadership training expert, “Putting down barriers about what people can and can’t say hurts team culture more than it builds it.” Many important social issues and movements have become intertwined with politics, and to limit conversations on these topics “could be viewed as sanctioning ignorance,” says Knight. Rather than silencing these important conversations, it is important to establish some ground rules and foster a respectful environment where team members can engage in constructive dialogue.

And while it’s important not to shy away from these conversations, don’t force them either. Be aware that not everyone will want to engage in political discussions or even be subjected to them. “Make clear that these conversations should only happen between team members who are willing and eager to participate…” says Gregory.

First rule of debate club: Encourage civility and respect

Gregory explains: “It isn’t your job to teach your team members about politics, but it is your job to teach them how to talk about tough issues.” As colleagues find themselves on opposite sides of a political debate, tempers can be quick to flare. Leaders should be ready to step in if passion starts to boil over into anger. No one likes hearing people talk over each other. And your staff don’t have the option of muting!

Remind your team that they’re not debating the best way to clear a paper jam in the copier — the goal is not to change the other person’s mind or argue that your way is best. If you’re going to have a political discussion at work, be clear that the objective is a positive and productive conversation that, ideally, helps you better understand each other in some way.

Call out insensitive or inappropriate comments right away

As leader, remember that it is not a requirement for your team to align with your personal political views. Having said that, you do have an obligation to ensure that each member of your team upholds the organization’s standards and values while they're at work. Inappropriate comments, particularly around diversity and inclusion, must be called out swiftly.

Gregory suggests that you “signal to the group that the comment was inappropriate,” and follow up privately with the person who made the comment. As uncomfortable as it is to do this, it ensures you “don’t give tacit permission for people to speak that way” to each other.

Encourage your team to be empathetic and open-minded

You may never get two strongly opinionated team members to agree on tax reform — or the best way to clear that paper jam! — but you can encourage your people to listen to each other without prejudice or judgement.

In many aspects of our lives, including work, we end up “living in self-reinforcing echo chambers,” says Gregory. As a result, we tend to incorrectly assume that our colleagues see the world exactly as we do. We can end up alienating people we otherwise respect and admire because their personal experiences have led to differing political beliefs.

Engaging in conversation with an open mind and a willingness to find common ground remains the best way to build a strong community — in the office and beyond.

Separate the person from the politics

As a leader or manager, it is particularly important to lead by example. Be mindful of the power dynamic and tread carefully when discussing politics with your team. Be vigilant for unconscious bias against anyone who does not share your political beliefs.

Model open mindedness and seek to understand divergent viewpoints.

Whatever we can do, at work or at home, to engage in thoughtful conversation together will ultimately help overcome the divisiveness that threatens our communities and democratic values.

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