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Talking Taboo: Making the Most of Polarizing Discussions at Work

Talking taboo making the most of polarizing discussions at work.

When politics, sex, race, religion, and other polarizing subjects come up in conversation among co-workers, what happens next? SHRM Chief Knowledge Officer Alexander Alonso, Ph.D., SHRM-SCP, explains why some topics are taboo while others are not, then offers navigation strategies for real-world conversations on taboo topics, such as politics, race, religion, sex and gender.  

Excerpted from the newly released SHRM book Talking Taboo, based on the extensive findings of the 2020 Survey of Politics and Polarizing Discussions in the Workplace. 

Polarization is a symptom as well as a catalyst of taboo talk, fostering divisions that can be fatal to an organization's survival. Another cause of division is defensiveness, which, according to author and educator Irshad Manji, arises from the fear of being judged. 

Manji explains that "when we feel shamed, blamed, or labeled unworthy by those whose respect we covet, we become defensive. The result? More division." Working or learning in a judgmental environment "rarely inspires people to listen to one another authentically" but instead creates the conditions for "sowing resentment, fueling self-censorship, and undermining collaboration." 

In terms of taboo talk in the workplace, someone who is defensive of their views because they feel judged for expressing them is in the same position as someone who is opinionated: their perspectives have become entrenched and thus are more likely to be weaponized.

Diversity Without Division 

So, how do individuals and organizations achieve "diversity without division" in a society that is "increasingly diverse and polarized at the same time" and "needs people to engage with empathy"? Can people who work together learn to express differing opinions on polarizing issues without letting their conversations devolve into or exacerbate real conflict on the job? 

Manji's solution is to "cultivate diversity of viewpoint" in the organizational culture. "Honest diversity [in an organization] starts with the desire for varied perspectives," she says, because this enables diverse representation to emerge "honestly" or organically from within. Having a mix of views can "build bridges—and teamwork— across institutions." Imposing diverse representation on an organization, however, hoping that will inspire diverse thinking ("the other way round") will instead "incite needless friction." 

To help institutions embrace diversity of thought, Manji developed a framework to train businesses, schools, and communities in "moral courage." This philosophy and methodology recognizes that "learning to communicate across differences, especially disagreements, is a key leadership skill," which is designed as a tool "to transform disagreement into engagement and, ultimately, into shared action."

Empathetic Listening

What is it like to work in a nonjudgmental environment where people are encouraged to express their opinions on everything from the mundane to the controversial? In such a culture—for example, at Barry-Wehmiller Companies Inc.—taboo talk isn't considered taboo. It's simply part of what CEO and Chairman Bob Chapman calls "empathetic listening." 

Empathetic listening is taught in the company's internal "university" as Communication Skills Training. Prominent business leaders familiar with the course have been so impressed by its positive impact that they have been influenced to challenge others to be similarly "committed to listening a little more and talking a little less." 

How Barry-Wehmiller employees communicate with one another is something the company considers within its "span of care." This term is a pointed contrast to "span of control," a concept in business and HR that describes the number of subordinates a supervisor is responsible for. Chapman's coinage reflects a different understanding and style of management, which can be described as "organizational leadership reconnecting with their own humanity and recognizing the humanity of those they lead. Recognizing that the people within their span of care are not numbers on a spreadsheet" and instead acknowledging that "the way we lead impacts the way people live. And that extends to the health and wellbeing of those within our span of care." 

Lessons Learned

What the CEO really did was show the machinist that the company's culture was one in which differences of opinion could thrive. He also showed the entire workforce that the organization was committed to maintaining its cultural norms, of which listening to diverse viewpoints was one. In other words, the CEO demonstrated that no topics of discussion, including the machinist's problematic political pronouncements, could shred the culture's guiding principles. 

A challenge to the organizational culture (here in the form of a contrarian sharing divisive opinions) presented an opportunity for the company to recommit to its principles (in this case, empathetic listening) instead of succumbing to potential division provoked by the challenge. Honest communication—even what was considered taboo—was celebrated rather than dismissed or discouraged.

Fostering allegiance to organizational culture over individual opinion is a novel approach to cultural alignment.

Empathy/Polarization Index

Openness (the organization fosters openness to different perspectives) and polarization (the organization welcomes individual as well as collective opinions of all kinds and works to prevent people from becoming further polarized from one another) are the two key factors involved in the development of this story. Belonging (the organization provides all staff with a sense of belonging) is prominent in its resolution.

Me + We + WO + RK Framework

From the perspective of the CEO, the We question (what did my counterpart experience during this conversation?) is most applicable here: he used empathy to imagine the machinist's perspectives. This prompted the machinist into self-awareness (the Me question: what did I experience during this conversation?) and likely into some empathetic awareness of his coworkers as well.

Practical Steps

Honest diversity and moral courage. Empathetic listening and truly human leadership. The Empathy/Polarization Index and the Me + We + WO + RK framework. All of these concepts address, at least in part, polarization and polarizing discussions in the workplace.

Here are a few actions that many executives are already taking in their own organizations to get a handle on the kind of talk that creates havoc in the workplace: 

  1. Modeling polarizing discussions for their workforce by demonstrating how disagreements (between leaders, as modeled by their behavior toward each other) do not have to escalate to disruption and disillusionment. The aim is to foster, and thereby normalize, difficult conversations. 
  2. Confining polarizing discussions among the workforce to a platform (e.g., Slack, Reddit) dedicated to hosting them. Leaders and the organization can benefit from an intentional effort to encourage transparent communication where it's going to happen anyway. 
  3. Including "management of polarizing discussions" as an element in performance appraisals and 360-degree leadership evaluations to assess managers' ability to foster and resolve polarization. It can also be used as a criterion in leadership development programs. 
  4. Creating rewards and incentives (e.g., a cash bonus or paid time off) for individuals who participate in polarizing discussions without generating negative consequences or outcomes. 
  5. Making transparent to all stakeholders, including the public, the fact that polarizing discussions occur in the organization. This can be accomplished by recognizing such conversations as a part of cultural values. (At SHRM, for example, one of our principles is "pushing back to move forward." Being overly agreeable and avoiding pushback, even when necessary, is something we identified in our organizational culture as counterproductive.) 

These were the top five practices described by 1,200 global leaders across eighteen major industries for tackling taboo talk in the workplace, according to a recent SHRM survey.


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