As the U.S. holds its presidential election in 2024, political differences among employees bring the risk of diminished collaboration and engagement. It’s unlikely that organizations can simply mandate that people keep their politics and work separate. A whopping 83 percent of all employees discuss politics at work, according to a recent survey from jobs search engine Zety.
Politically driven conflicts can drain people’s time and productivity, as well as spur employee turnover and stress. A Myers-Briggs Company study showed that managers spend an average of 4.3 hours per week dealing with workplace conflict on their teams.
Much of this conflict plays out over email and text-based channels in the workplace. They are by far the top choice for workplace communication, according to 86 percent of employees asked in a recent Preply survey. Yet, despite their popularity, email and text are also famously prone to creating workplace misunderstandings and conflict.
The Preply survey found that email is the communication channel with the highest likelihood of creating misunderstandings. “Nuance and tone typically get lost in an email message,” said Mark DeFee, a workplace wellness consultant. “Unlike face-to-face interactions, text-based forms of communication lack important nonverbal cues around body language, facial expressions and tone of voice, giving rise to misunderstandings and conflict.”
Common examples of email or texting bad behavior include belittling others, finger-pointing when things go wrong, stealing credit for ideas and contributions, and disrespectful language and behavior toward colleagues. Inserting political disputes into email messages is a growing driver of workplace conflict.
What can be done to reduce conflict and stress related to email, especially in the current climate of political polarization? Experts in conflict management and business communication weighed in.
Advice for Maintaining Professional, Civil Communication
- Reinforce the importance of teamwork. “The overriding goal of any workplace is for people to work together in order to create value, not to debate political and/or social issues,” said Sue Haywood, president and owner of Human Resource Blueprints, an Ontario, Canada-based HR consultancy. “Keep reminding people that they should be respecting and leveraging each other’s different areas of expertise and managing any conflicts as they arise.”
- Talk about communication styles. “People have different styles that can potentially create conflict. Employee A might think of email as writing a letter. There's a salutation, multiple paragraphs and a signature at the end,” said Richard Birke, chief architect of JAMS Pathways, a conflict resolution firm. “And Employee B replies ‘OK,’ without a salutation or signature. Employee A thinks B is rude, and B thinks A can't get to the point.”
Be aware of your own email communication style, Birke said, “perhaps by asking others for feedback and having a conversation about differences. For example, if a senior manager typically needs to respond to lots of emails quickly, she might tell others not to interpret her short responses as the final word.”
- Wait before you hit send, and consider using AI. “Especially when you’re feeling tired or emotional, always take time to review what you intend to say in an email,” Haywood said. “Maybe wait 24 hours before you hit send. Carefully review your message for tone. You could even use AI tools to filter your message for tone, since more of those tools are available.”
- Be intentional about relationship-building. “Managing conflicts effectively begins long before they happen, by investing your time and energy into building relationships with colleagues in advance of difficult conversations,” said Jennifer Dulski, founder and CEO of Rising Team, software that helps managers develop more engaged teams. “When you have a context of mutual understanding and trust between people, managing conflict becomes somewhat easier.”
- Enforce company policies, without exception. “An organization’s conflict management guidelines and its policies around workplace conflict need to be carefully considered and formalized, but then applied consistently when incidents occur,” DeFee said. “Leaders can't just provide lip service about teamwork and then ignore issues when they arise. If you ignore conflict, your teams could fracture into warring camps.”
- Keep your email structure simple, and be ready to pick up the phone or meet in person. “Structure your business emails simply by describing 1) what happened, 2) why it matters, 3) what we should do about it and 4) make specific ‘asks’ of recipients,” said Josh Bernoff, author of Writing Without Bullsh*t (Harper Business, 2016). “If your email generates more than three back-and-forth responses, then pick up the phone or meet in person.”
- Teach conflict management skills. “Most employees, 60 percent according to one recent study, have never been taught basic conflict management skills,” DeFee said. “We have this weird dynamic where organizations say conflict is inevitable, and sometimes even beneficial for spurring innovation, but they don’t educate people on how to manage conflict well. That makes no sense.”
- Hire for emotional intelligence. “Nobody enjoys working with jerks, so hire for emotional intelligence,” DeFee said. “People who impulsively fire off angry emails become catalysts for recurring cycles of workplace conflict. Having emotional intelligence, on the other hand, means that if we receive a brusque email that triggers us and we feel a knee-jerk reaction, we can pull back, breathe for a minute and not respond impulsively.”
Joseph Romsey is a freelance writer in Boston.