Talking Politics At Work

Jesse Jackson quote - artisticleader

The 2016 U.S. Presidential election is like none other in a generation. Right or wrong, both candidates are disliked by a large portion of the American public. The 24-hour news cycle and social media have created a vortex of little more than noise, most of it an echo for the individual listener. Inevitably, politics becomes a topic at work and this year is riskier than ever. I researched some articles on how to handle this as a manager. Here’s what I found.

The stress that talking politics can create is real. “Science Says Talking Politics at Work Can Wreck Your Teams” from Inc. Magazine shared the stats of an American Psychological Association survey. Among the finds:

  • Men and younger team members were most likely to experience adverse consequences from these discussions.
  • 20% of team members said they avoid coworkers because of their political views.
  • 17% of Gen-X and Boomers (approximately 35 years old and up) and 28% of Millennials were stressed out by political discussions.
  • 10% of Gen-X and Boomers and 21% of Millennials reported that political discussions at work negatively impacted the quality of their work.

Even though some of those numbers are small, they are problematic especially when they involve reduced performance and negative views of team members. As a manager, you don’t want to stifle discussion. After all, we spend the majority of our waking hours with our coworkers. There are some things you can model and coach to flip these discussions into a positive for you and the organization.

In the article, “How to Talk Politics at Work Without Alienating People” from Harvard Business Review, the authors discuss four communication skills that people can use to reduce the likelihood of an adverse outcome when talking politics. These are great to model for your team members.

1. Focus on learning: frame the discussion as a chance to learn from the other person.
2. Ask for permission: after framing, ask to discuss the sensitive topic. Getting buy-in increases receptivity.
3. Show respect: say and demonstrate that you value their perspective regardless of if you share it.
4. Focus on common ground: there’s almost always a shared value or position between every two points. Find it and appreciate it.

There are more suggestions from HBR in the article “Should You Talk About Politics at Work?” The author does an excellent job of framing the risks of talking politics in the workplace. These are good points to share with your whole team. It’s not to dissuade them from talking but to help them keep the conversation in perspective.

Some of the suggestions are similar to the prior article and make sense for any conversation (i.e. showing respect). What I like most about this article is how it embraces the benefits of these discussions. Yes, there are benefits.

The primary skill I coach is how to have tough talks. The skills you and your team deploy to engage in political discussions without the adverse outcomes are the same ones you use for any awkward conversation in the workplace.

Unlike workplace discussions where an unwanted result may have to be accepted, political debates are not going to change anyone’s vote. That leaves them free of the need to achieve a consensus which is the hardest part of most tough talks. I look at them as great practice for managers and their team members.

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