Nine out of ten voters of the 2016 Presidential election thought it was more polarizing and controversial than the 2012 elections1Study done by Vitalsmarts.
Unfortunately, the 2016 Presidential election was at best foreplay for the cultural hellfire that will be rained down on American society leading up to the 2020 Presidential election.
Leaders must be prepared for the potential ramifications of the 2020 elections on their business culture.
Having a “Politics have no place in the office,” policy isn’t good enough.
Is your business culture able to thrive despite the anger, angst, and animosity that will inevitably accompany the negativity and hate the mass media will use to pit American against American in order to drive attention and ratings?
The answer could be “No” and that should scare you.
The potential for problems exists not because you haven’t built a strong business culture or because you have divisive troublemakers for employees, but rather because you haven’t addressed the issue “Politics in the office,” head-on.
It’s far easier to ignore our political differences than it is to address them. In fact, 81% of voters surveyed in 2016 said they avoid political discussions at work at all costs2How to Talk Politics at Work Without Alienating People.
In part, this is good news because it shows that most employees do not desire to talk politics at work. Upon hearing this, your first inclination may be to let a sleeping dog lie.
This path is obviously much easier short-term but creates massive latent risk long-term as the very fabric of your business culture can be torn apart as unaddressed political pontifications are randomly sprayed throughout the office.
The answer is NOT to ignore the election.
Avoiding the impact the 2020 Presidential election will have on organizational morale opens the door for the demons of division to fester and corrupt the culture you’ve fought hard to develop.
No one wants a hostile workplace. Unfortunately, in our society today, few things fuel hostility like politics.
My advice is to be proactive.
NOTE: Before we go much further it feels prudent to state that your fellow team members political opinions will undoubtedly span the spectrum of viewpoints, and therefore the research and recommendations provided in this article are non-partisan.
Political Conversations Add No Value to the Work Experience
Understand that the vast majority of your team does not want to discuss politics at work, nor do they need the company they work for to align with their own personal political beliefs.
According to a report from Clutch3Study by Clutch titled, How Political Expression Impacts Workplace Culture, 76% of employees think it’s unimportant to work at a company that aligns with their political views.
Furthermore, almost half, (48%), believe differing political viewpoints at work decrease the potential for a healthy exchange of ideas.
In fact, the majority of employees, (60%), either don’t know or can’t tell if their political views align with their coworkers. These findings suggest that politics add no value to an employee’s work experience.
What I’m suggesting is the 2020 Presidential elections have the potential to be a flashpoint, creating unwanted exchanges between co-workers they don’t know how to deal with.
This is What Happens When Politics Enter the Workplace
When politics enter the workplace, the impact can be staggering.
Communication is the key to a healthy business culture. Politics corrupt and disrupt the natural flow of productive internal communication.
Research shows that team members are influenced by politically like-minded others, even when they had a good reason not to be4Epistemic spillovers: Learning others’ political views reduces the ability to assess and use their expertise in nonpolitical domains. What’s even more troublesome, is team members turning to politically like-minded co-workers even when others have more accurate information or be better suited for a task.
This is how business culture breaks down.
A series of small, seemingly innocuous decisions slowly degrade the lines of communication between team members of opposing political viewpoints.
Despite no one actually wanting to engage in political conversations at work, they’re still most likely going to happen.
How to Discuss Politics at Work
None of this is meant to insinuate that addressing politics in the workplace is easy. As leaders, we want to encourage diversity of thought. Diverse teams are more likely to constantly reexamine facts and remain objective5Why Diverse Teams Are Smarter.
But even Google, known for its business culture of openingly questioning everything about the company has struggled to handle political conversations at work.
After internal message boards became filled with toxic discourse6Google Doesn’t Want Staff Debating Politics at Work Anymore, Google posted internal community guidelines that discouraged employees from openly debating politics and news stories.
Google’s community guidelines were met with strong internal opposition as team members were concerned this meant the end of Google’s open culture.
While I believe Google positioned their community guidelines incorrectly, (framing them more as hard-and-fast rules and at certain points almost insinuating blame rather than providing a simple framework to respectfully yet still openly express an opinion or idea), they were right in taking a proactive approach to solving the issue.
Here are a few ideas upon which you can build your own philosophy on how to discuss politics at work:
- No Ignorance
Sit your staff down and have an open dialogue. Do not focus on specific individual viewpoints, instead acknowledge that we all have unique viewpoints based on our own experiences, upbringing, and moral belief structure.
The goal is understanding.
- No Picking Teams
Ask your employees to stop picking teams. Too often we find one difference in opinion or belief and assume the other person is somehow fighting against us when the opposite is more likely true. We should be seeking to find one commonality and building from there.
The goal is abundance.
- No Evangelism
Do not begin or allow political conversations with the goal being to change someone’s mind on a topic. Frame conversations as a chance to learn from each other not to change each other’s minds. Simply being curious about another’s position is sufficient motivation to engage.
The goal is empathy.
- No Activism
Set the standard that all team members must manage their own motives in all conversations. The workplace is not a pulpit for political campaigning. Period.
The goal is consideration.
- No Absolutes
There are few things more polarizing than speaking in absolutes. Beliefs positions as absolute truth leave no room for negotiation, for nuance, for the considerable amount of grey area we know exists in almost every facet of our lives.
The goal is acceptance.
The impact of political expression in the workplace can be widespread and systemic. This is especially true for small business, where the cultural impact is more profound when leaders take political stances.
Stay above the fray. Lead by example. As much as possible, do not fall into the trap of discussing politics at work.
When politics do become part of work discourse, do your best funnel the conversation through a set of guidelines that promote understanding, abundance, empathy, consideration, and acceptance.
There is no doubt, a healthy workplace (and democracy) produces the best advancements through the open exchange of ideas. These advancements end (and become toxic) when team members believe they have to choose between speaking their minds and keeping friendships with their coworkers.
Please do not get blindsided by the 2020 Presidential election. Be proactive and develop an organizational philosophy and set of guidelines that address how to discuss politics at work.
Yours in strength,
P.S. Would love to know what you think about politics at work. Leave a comment below and join the conversation.
Photo by Paweł Czerwiński on Unsplash