Take Steps to Keep Political Discussions Civil at Work

Kathy Gurchiek By Kathy Gurchiek March 3, 2020
Take Steps to Keep Political Discussions Civil at Work

March 3 is Super Tuesday—the day prior to the presidential election when the most states hold primary elections and caucuses to choose candidates—but discussing politics and political issues in the workplace isn't always so super. With the approaching presidential election, tempers can flare and heated debates can create tension among co-workers. In some cases, disagreements escalate into name-calling, hurling insults or shunning colleagues who hold opposing views.

"Politics is often an emotional topic because government policies impact our deeply held beliefs and values," said Heidi Collins, vice president of people operations at 15Five, a performance management software company in San Francisco.

"Enforcing an outright ban on political discussion is nearly impossible," she noted, "unless you want to establish a culture of micromanaging and intrusive monitoring. Stifling communication is also incongruent with modern-day workplace practices."

A recent survey of more than 1,000 U.S. employees found that more than half of the men (58 percent) and 40 percent of the women fear that disagreeing with their boss or co-workers could hurt their performance review.

"It's concerning that half of the American workforce is worried that disagreeing with their managers about politics might have repercussions for their career," said Greg Brown, CEO of Reflektive, a performance management company also based in San Francisco.

"As an employer, you want your employees to have diversity of thought," Brown noted. "Your job isn't to suppress this [conversation], but you do need HR, leadership and management to set the boundaries, communicate them to employees and lead by example."

And people do talk politics. Research from the Society for Human Resource Management suggests many workers are involved in such discussions at work and those discussions are leading to conflicts:

  • 56 percent of U.S. employees said politics and the discussion of political issues have become more common in the last four years.
  • 42 percent have personally experienced political disagreements in the workplace.
  • 34 percent said their workplace is not inclusive of differing political perspectives.
  • 12 percent have personally experienced political-affiliation bias.

VitalSmarts, a leadership training company in Provo, Utah, found in a February survey of 1,060 of its newsletter subscribers that discussing politics outside of work can have a small trickle-down effect on careers. Managers were asked how they would respond to being at a dinner party and hearing a co-worker they oversee speak sarcastically about a presidential candidate the manager favors:

  • 6 percent said this would greatly hurt the employee's promotability.
  • 15 percent it would hurt promotability a little.
  • 51 percent said it would have no impact.
  • 23 percent it would help the employee's promotability a little.
  • 6 percent said it would help a lot.

Respectful Conversations

"It's important to establish and reinforce company values and a culture where the goal is inclusivity and an appreciation for diverse perspectives," 15Five's Collins said. "Still, that doesn't mean the office should be a perpetual segment of 'Meet the Press,' especially if it hinders productivity."

If your culture is one of infighting, toxicity and competition, she said, "it's probably a good idea to establish firm rules around political discussions, including an outright ban. But if your culture is one where you actively train employees on how to communicate with compassion, awareness and a focus on connection, HR can just reiterate that when it comes to political conversations, with a suggestion that people try to avoid these conversations at work."

Those conversations can go beyond "my candidate versus your candidate," dipping into political hot-button topics such as abortion, religion, gun control and immigration.

Joseph Grenny, co-author of the New York Times best-seller Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High (McGraw Hill Education, 2011), offered the following tips on how to share political opinions at work without dissolving into hard feelings and loss of respect:

Frame your conversation as a chance to learn from each other, not to change each other's minds. Simply being curious about another's position is sufficient motivation to engage. That may sound like:

  • "I know what I think about this issue, but I'm curious about why you feel so differently. Would you be open to sharing your position with me?"

Explain that you aren't trying to change the person's mind or attack his or her position. Then ask for permission to talk about the sensitive topic. Here are some examples:

  • "I'm not wanting a debate, and I'm not trying to change your mind. I just want to understand. I see this issue very differently. Would it be OK if I explained my perspective?"
  • "I'd also like to share my thoughts and get your reaction, if you're interested."

Show respect. Others will not engage with you if they don't feel respected by you. Over-communicate your respect for the other person and his or her opinion:

  • "I value you and your perspective. I want to hear from you. I don't assume I'm right."
  • "I would like the benefit of your perspective."
  • "What have you experienced or learned that led you to feel that way?"

Look for areas of agreement rather than disagreement. If the conversation takes a more dramatic turn, look for the greater principle governing both opinions. Say things like:

  • "I want to find the goals we share and then look at the issue with those goals in mind."
  • "Sounds like, for you, this ties to lots of things that are also very important to me."
  • "Can you help me understand why this matters so much to you?"

"Even if you agree with people, but do so in a way that is defensive, posturing or aggressive, it decreases the likelihood they'll respect you or the outcome will be amiable," Grenny said. "However, if you can express your opinion skillfully, you can associate with anyone. Ultimately, the key to successful dialogue is to make it safe for others to not only hear you, but to share their own ideas."

Collins suggests being aware of your environment when having these talks.

"Can others hear you, who may not want to be part of the conversation? Perhaps you can go get coffee or a drink after work if you want to have these conversations."

And don't forget the "pause button," she added.

"It's important when you're having emotion-forward conversations to take a moment to breathe before responding back to the person you're speaking with. In conversations where there can be differing views, taking a breath will help you be more mindful before you speak."



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