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Q & A

Can We Talk about Politics at Work?

It’s a tense time in American politics, to say the least. We asked Heidi Brooks, who studies organizational behavior and pioneered the course Everyday Leadership, for her advice on how organizations can respond positively to strong opinions and emotions around political issues—both during election season and after the votes have been cast.   

An illustration of people reading newspapers with election news.

How do you navigate the line between personal politics and civic issues that would affect the way you work with a colleague who has different viewpoints?

So, a lot is happening here—let’s start by acknowledging that we are navigating on multiple levels simultaneously. Imagine clips of what is happening inside people—which is a lot! We have busy hearts and heads right now. People have lots of thoughts and feelings about current politics and about other people’s politics and about interacting across these differences in the workplace. And we have feelings about the thoughts we have in this complicated time! Then we have real one-to-one relationships with colleagues at work. (We pay too little attention to interpersonal aspects of work, but I often hear about how much relationships at work matter for sense of connection, information flow, and evaluation.) We have a social memory of how we feel in relationships, so some of these interactions are tinged with history and memory as well as the political divide. There are things happening at your team level or business unit level. There are things happening at the organizational level. And then there’s the context of the country and perhaps the world. There are all of these levels of analysis that we can look at and say, “What’s happening and what’s driving my interaction?” All of this happens simultaneously.

Most workplaces have some sort of implicit or explicit agreement that being a good citizen matters in your organization. We may have different ideas of what that means in the U.S. right now, but specific organizational cultures provide some idea of what it means to be a good citizen. These expectations are relayed overtly or subtly in company values statements, communication, and leadership behaviors. As I said in another Yale Insights interview, times of stress are good opportunities to learn about the DNA of your organizational culture. The organizational culture sets the stage for navigating political issues with colleagues because culture is “how we do things around here.” Some part of organizational culture plays out in how your organization, team, or business unit manages conflict, diversity of thought, and group cohesion. It might be a time when you can see whether your organizational culture has the learning muscle, psychological safety, and recovery capacity to learn the way forward. Or not.

“It might be an important time to say, ‘I don’t agree with you. I might think you’re wrong politically, but I care about you and I care about this work and I care about working together. And so I’m going to try to be bigger than this moment.’”

So I feel for the people who are leading and managing every day, because there is a lot to manage that might not be in our current understanding of what everyday leadership really requires. At the intrapersonal level, it’s a very emotional time, with the pandemic and with questions of racial justice and the incredibly divisive presidential election in the U.S. People are pretty geared up. And we are not our best when we feel threatened. We don’t think broadly. We think defensively from a place of self-protection and protection of our group and our people. And so we defend and disagree with other people more. Perhaps one of the most difficult things is to work productively in an environment that encourages threat, where you’re constantly worried about your group status and power and place in the world of work and beyond.

At any of those levels, we need to ask, “How can we calm down out of a place of threat?” Because that’s not generative for wisdom or for creating a community that can work together. Unless there’s a tiger chasing you or some other imminent threat, we need to calm down so we can be wiser.

What does “wiser” mean intrapersonally? Get more centered and evaluate what the threats and opportunities really are. You’re responsible for the way that you interact with others. You can’t just weaponize this moment as though you are personally victimized and then find it excusable to do harm to others. I mean, you can and we are seeing that, but that stance is not without consequence. We have impact on each other and the environments we live and work in. Get out of blame and self-righteousness and making others wrong as your primary social interaction. It’s not working for work and workplaces or humanity. We have to talk ourselves out of a fabricated stance of immediate life-threatening defensiveness. We have got to find a way to be bigger and wiser than our fear and anxiety. It begins by not letting fear determine how you show up.

So, in an anxiety-provoking time, what other choices can you make? Maybe you can ask other questions: Interpersonally, why are you in relationships with these people? Are there relationships that you care about, that you want to invest in, that you want to preserve? Be careful not to sacrifice them during this time. If you’re in a work context, assuming that we have work to negotiate after the election, you’re going to have some pretty hard stuff to negotiate if you die on the cross of what happens on November 3.  So you might want to have some perspective beyond the immediate moment and articulate a bigger frame than election season, and a different stake for investing in your relationship. It might be an important time to say, “I don’t agree with you. I might think you’re wrong politically, but I care about you and I care about this work and I care about working together. And so I’m going to try to be bigger than this moment.”

Honest conversations about differences are so hard. How can the managers and the members of an organization actually start those conversations?

It’s probably a good time to center ourselves on a shared purpose. Our political agendas are not the reason that most of our organizations exist. In the way you might have a difficult conversation with your partner or an intimate friend, you start by articulating a larger reason for having a potentially tense discussion. With a significant other, It’s because you love them and want to connect and fight for your relationship. With work colleagues, you might start by saying, “I want to have a conversation that’s a little bit awkward or tense for me, but the reason I want to have that conversation with you is that I care about working well together.”

Or you might say, “The reason I want to talk about these things at work is I want to have a powerful, shared commitment to our organization. I care about this place. I want to have a great working relationship with you. And so one of the things I want to do is to be able to talk about our differences. Not necessarily to convince each other to agree or to bring you over to my side, but I want to be able to talk with you about how we work together.

“I’m committed to working well with you. I care about that and our team and our organization. And yet in the context of such a contentious presidential election, there’s a lot of stuff that’s divisive for us. I think we need to talk about how to connect across our differences and agree to respect that each of us has positive intentions.”

That’s a very generous, open-minded way to be at work, I think. Because this is a very divisive time, a lot of things are coming to the surface and are very raw.

There is always a place for politeness and civility. So if it can’t be genuine and deep, at least go with surface kindness and respect. Say “please” and “thank you” and treat each other in such a way that the other person can uphold their dignity. It’s the least we can do to create a civil, respectful workplace. I consider some of that surface behavior transactional, but it creates a society where people feel respected and okay. We are not great at that and even worse when we perceive difference and threat combined. We don’t have to be aware of these things for the dynamics to be alive and well and destructive. It’s not OK to use our power this way and even less OK to dismiss the negative impact of destructive dynamics because of ignorance. We have simply got to get better at creating workplaces that help people thrive.

My other answers were really for a deeper, more genuine level of interaction where you can say, “I disagree with pretty much every sign that you have put in your office for the last six months, but we’ve also been working together for five years and I actually like working here. So whatever happens on November 3, I’m committed to being able to work together. I just want to let you know that.”

I think it’s OK, important even, to have a bigger self that we’re aspiring toward, and to have language frames that we articulate to other people about who we are trying to be and what impact we aim to have. It’s a social accountability that helps each of us be a better person, whereas if we watch some political ad and then stomp into our colleague’s office because they have a different political sign up, is that really who we want to be? We might not have very much direct power over the political sphere. You can vote if you’re a U.S. citizen. You can donate, write letters, canvas, volunteer for candidates if we chose—but maybe not at work. But what can you really do at work? Yell at your colleague? Is that going to make you feel better? Really? In 10 minutes, in 10 weeks, in 10 months, what consequence will you have as a result of the actions that you take now?

As you say, we’re all going to have to live with the result of this election, or even a contested election. Who knows what we’re getting ready to head into.

Yes. And to continue my levels approach, if you’re leading a unit or influential within a unit, you can remind people, “Hey, be bigger than this moment. Remember that we’re working together and we work for x company and here are the values of the company. And I’m committed to managing everybody. Let’s keep it clean around here and be respectful. You are entitled to your opinions and thoughts and different commitments. We’re not going to pressure you on that front. We are going to pressure you to be good colleagues.”

What are some nonjudgmental ways for a manager to talk about politics? What are some specific ways they could encourage employees to be good citizens?

Obviously, encourage people to vote. If you want to send a sign that you respect people’s voice, even if it doesn’t agree with yours, you could say, “We really want to encourage everyone to vote.” You could do a more policy-oriented piece of giving people some time off to be able to do that. You could make sure there are not negative repercussions for taking time to vote. You can go beyond the encouragement to vote by welcoming voice at work in many ways and then attending to what people say. (Hint: Saying “My door is always open” is good but may not be enough.) You may wish to encourage respectful curiosity about what people care about and what gets their attention. For positive workplace dynamics, what may matter more than agreement? Try encouraging expressions of empathy, curiosity, respect for difference of opinions, listening, and perspective-taking. These behaviors may help people be able to tolerate and even appreciate others with whom they have political difference.

In addition, it’s important that leaders and managers set an environment of psychological safety for difference across many dimensions. I think the other framing could be that people are free to have their opinions and their political convictions, but you are not free to batter and badger your coworkers in a way that creates a negative work environment. We actually want our people to stay on here and having a work environment in which they can work happily matters. It is absolutely fair game for a manager and a leader to get people focused. It’s really easy to be off task right now; there’s so much provocative material to pay attention to that people care about personally. It might be an important time to have your everyday leadership presence felt. Your presence can help people connect to the big picture of the work and their valued role in the system and you can also encourage focus and appreciate the effort it takes to focus and be productive in this context.

I think the coronavirus and tension around all kinds of civil rights and other issues and the election are causing a lot of anxiety, depression, and disorientation. Is there a way of talking about that?

A lot of people are worked up and stressed. We are seeing higher rates of anxiety and depression and some mental health consequences of this time. And as we go into the change in weather and coronavirus is starting to spike, people might feel even more need to rely on approaches that are not helping—not getting enough exercise, not eating well, not communicating with people at work. So you can encourage people to take good care of themselves. It’s a great time to get it together with healthy practices like exercise and meditation and re-connecting with old friends. Do something undeniably positive for yourself, your work environment, or the world. Exercise, healthy food, and solid relationships are all protective and supportive during hard times.

It’s a good thing when team leaders create an everyday environment where people know, “We want you to be in good shape. We care about you. We have some employee resources for you to be able to lean into. Here’s where you can reach out for help.” It’s OK to be helpful and to acknowledge that it might be a hard time for people. Try not to be the source of making it a harder time. At the same time, work has demands to it, and so we want to be realistic about it.

“Let’s see if we can get this time to pass in a way that we all actually want to live and work together on the other side.”

We’re not all impacted the same way, and yet we’re all part of our organization together. We’re all experiencing the pandemic, but there is differential impact. So it’s a good time to be aware of the mutual state of our dilemma, and to do your best to try to contribute positively to the situation in which we find ourselves. How can you have a positive impact during this time, rather than demand resources in a negative way that is driven from self-interest?

I’m hearing a number of stories about employees who weaponize their position for accusations against their boss or the organization in ways that might have a defensible moral line, but might not play out well over time. So, be careful about being short-term right and having long-term suffering. There is a future beyond this moment. This too shall pass. Of course, address what matters and when possible, do so from a place of calm wisdom and perspective and very importantly, build some connections and alliances that can help develop a learning coalition and discussion around the issues you care about. Let’s see if we can get this time to pass in a way that we all actually want to live and work together on the other side.

Interview conducted by Emily Gordon.
Department: Q & A