In the old days, the rules of networking and professional etiquette were “don’t talk money, religion or politics.” I remember learning that rule in networking events in grad school and I used to apply it feverishly, avoiding all those topics with grace. Well, despite the fact some of our country badly wants to revert to the old days, the rules of the game have changed. One major takeaway from November 8, 2016 is we are a polarized country. As much as we’d like to think that from 9-5, we can pretend politics don’t exist, public policy is bleeding into our work now more than ever. In fact, this administration has been so polarizing that business decisions are being affected by protests, CEOs are speaking up to showcase that diversity won’t be threatened at their companies, or that they support / don’t support particular policies. The lines between business and politics are more blurred than ever, and whether in an effort to help your team make a business decision, or just in chatting at the water cooler, political leanings are bound to be expressed.
So how do we engage in conversations with coworkers that have the potential to be incredibly divisive? Here are some tactics you can give a try to maintain healthy relationships with your peers as conversations come up.
Don’t dismiss other ideas. In a recent LA Times article, a conversation in celebration of women filmmakers turned awkward as different political views were expressed. The conversation between Salma Hayek and Jessica Williams grew uncomfortable due to Hayek repeatedly speaking over Williams, dismissing her thoughts and feelings. Eventually, Williams got quiet.
Do you want an inclusive work culture? Well, one major component of that is encouraging discourse. Don’t cut people off or speak over them, even when you don’t agree with them. People tend to retreat into themselves when they feel they’re being attacked or ignored. If your employees or teammates feel like they can’t discuss an issue because someone is speaking over them, they may start to feel isolated and this could ultimately impact their motivation and other outputs.
Remain calm and take your time. Remember that you’re still at work and need to handle the situation accordingly. Uncomfortable topics affect people differently and political conversations can lead to chaos or blow-ups. So take a breath and take time to think about how you want to express yourself. Being thoughtful about your actions will provide better outcomes and help minimize any chance of you just flying off the handle.
Get comfortable with asking for help and advice. If you’re a manager or leader on your team, you may consider hiring a consultant to help deal with issues that are out of your comfort zone. For employees, asking for advice from a mentor, career coach or someone you trust at work is a useful tactic for figuring out how to avoid making a political conversation a career-ender.
Use your voice to be a leader. If you see your boss struggling to address an uncomfortable topic at work and you have an idea on how to address it, speak up. Speaking up helps your team and leaders be aware of different perspectives. People can be oblivious to things that don’t affect them, and can be unaware of how something they did or said came off. Offering your knowledge, your diverse perspective and experiences before things get uncomfortable can be very helpful to your team, and also demonstrate your ability to step up and lead.
With that said, don’t take it upon yourself to be the in-house minority speaker. Know that your perspective may not represent everyone that looks like you. Share your voice, but with the caveat, that it is yours only.
Facilitate an open discussion. If you notice politics are coming up more and more organically, plan a time to address them. Get the conversation out of the break room and into a conference room. Develop a strategy for how that time will be used. Allow your team to voice their concerns and issues and how they feel affected by it. Decide on some outcomes from the discussion. Perhaps, you want to develop ground rules, for how to address these topics in the future. Maybe you want to make changes to company policy, or create an action plan for how your company will publicly respond. Whatever you do, make sure there is a plan for how these conversations will conclude and what the next steps will be. Give your team a venue to express themselves, and also let them know their voices matter.
Managing difficult conversations is a key leadership competency. Managing political conversations… well that’s a key need in today’s climate. Make it your business to know how to hold your own in these discussions, while also adding value to your team and not isolating dissenting opinions.