When Politics Come to Work

When Politics Come to Work

With the US election season ending this week, we now return to our regularly-scheduled programming—or, in other words, back to work.

Or do we?

In fact, after the election is over and leaders are chosen, heated discussions about politics don’t necessarily end.  It’s true that leaders have an outsized influence on the tone of a culture. But that culture does not change so quickly; people en masse are reluctant to swap their attitudes and perspectives for others so quickly. Often, a leader simply raises the volume on a part of society’s point of view. So, we shouldn’t be so quick to expect the tone of our conversations about social and political issues to change.

While Back at Work…

For many people, the workplace consumes a lot of our time, usually 40+ hours a week. Coworkers are the people we see every day, that we work alongside with, sit next to at lunch, maybe have drinks after work with, share the joys of birthdays and the sorrows of family deaths.  Coworkers often become personal friends—friendships that may transcend the work hours and even job changes. They may know us better than many family members.

So, how do we not talk about non-work matters with coworkers? You know, trivial, light social issues about what democracy means and how to retain it, the role of a multicultural society, whether to abide by court decisions—that type of thing.

We talk about so many other issues at work—hobbies, sports, family, life plans, and all the rest. We may confide in coworkers on many other personal issues. Why wouldn’t we talk society and politics with them? In fact, it may seem safer to talk politics with a coworker than with a family member precisely because we’re expected to behave at work. Not always true with family.

Yet…the workplace is where we are supposed to come together around a common mission—you know, teamwork, collaboration, constructive interactions, all that. We come to work with our specialized skills to join with others who bring their unique competencies to create a sum that is greater than the parts. If we do that well, we build something of worth that serves our customers and creates real value.  (When this doesn’t happen, our organization falters, falls behind and risks closure, and our jobs with it.)

So, how do we remain our true, authentic selves at work and ensure we interact civilly in a way to promote the organization’s success (and, in turn, our own)?

What if we were to listen to these perspectives of our coworkers? Really listen—not just wait for them to finish talking so we can get a word in? What if we tried to really understand the nuances of their opinion and, more important, the reason behind their opinion?  What if we then articulated our understanding of what they said and its reasoning back to them to show that we truly understood them? What if that is how we engage in conversations?

Might it be that our and their underlying assumptions are closer than we think?  That we have similar reasons for why we advocate the social and political opinions we advocate? That we begin to recognize, understand, even appreciate another person’s rationale…and, in turn, their point of view. And, even if our assumptions are not so close, that each of us still holds beliefs that emanate from a rationale, reasonable basis? Perspectives that are well intentioned even if they’re not the ones we hold?

This is what happens when people come together and share their ideas … collaborating to find solutions that solve complex problems. This is how innovation occurs. This is what leads customers to become loyal advocates. This is what creates great organizations.

So, if we cannot have these civil – even constructive—conversations around social and political issues, how can we expect to work together when it counts – when the greatness of our company hangs in the balance due to the tenor of our conversations.

In the end, if we’re not willing to have intelligent, respectful, intentional conversations about these issues, why would we do a disservice to our coworkers, ourselves and our organization by inviting dissention and animosity through trivial, poorly executed discussions that, in turn, hurt the success of our organization?

So, when social and political issues arise in the workplace, are you simply spouting off, or are you really talking?

Jason has worked in ethics and compliance for over twenty-five years, consulting with Fortune 500™ companies across the business ethics and compliance spectrum, including assessing and strengthening corporate values initiatives, instituting leadership engagement efforts, developing and revising codes of conduct and policies, designing and implementing related procedures, developing monitoring systems, conducting risk, culture and program assessments.

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