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What to do when politics divide an office

Political differences can be a constructive opportunity if handled properly.
What to do when politics divide an office

As the world becomes more polarised, there’s a good chance your office will follow suit. Politics have become more personal than ever, and because your employees often bring their whole selves to work, there’s little hope of keeping political discussions out of the workplace entirely. The good news is, with a bit of effort and thoughtfulness, people across the political spectrum can coexist and even thrive in one office.

In many ways, political views are just another aspect of diversity, similar to race, religion, and sexual orientation, in that they bring unique perspectives to the table.

“You need divergent views because that's how you innovate, make better decisions, and prepare for the future,” said Kate Cooper, head of research, policy, and standards for The Institute of Leadership & Management, a professional membership body based in the UK. “If everybody agreed, that would be a poor business and a sad place to work.”

Cooper urges leaders to remind employees that friendly working relationships are probably more important to their day-to-day life than proving their point about trade negotiations in Brussels, for example.

“It's time to set your priorities,” she said. “Would you like the vote to get through Parliament, or would you like to be friends with Neil again?”

Here are some tips from experts on what you can do as manager to ensure political divisions don’t create a toxic workplace environment:

Shift the conversation so it’s relevant to work. At their worst, political debates in the office can get everyone sidetracked and riled up about something completely irrelevant to the task at hand. But at their best, office discussions surrounding current events can actually expand viewpoints and contribute to creative problem-solving.

Liane Davey, Ph.D., author and co-founder of 3COze Inc., a Canadian consulting company that specialises in team effectiveness, recommends managers try to redirect the conversation to something relevant, without completely stifling political talk.

Say employees are bickering about the candidates for an upcoming election. It’s not productive for colleagues to debate about who they think should win. But if the conversation is shifted to discussing how a frontrunner’s platform would affect the business, that is a step in the right direction.

“Let's not talk about whether someone is an idiot or not. Let's talk about what we need to learn, anticipate, or do differently [as a company],” Davey said.

Facilitate a conversation between employees. If two employees are at odds with each other due to political differences, it may be helpful for a manager to facilitate a conversation, so they can work it out amongst themselves.

But the manager should make sure the discussion doesn’t devolve into an argument over who's right and who's wrong, warned Toni Jacka, lead consultant for Positive People Human Resource Management Consultancy in New Zealand.

“They’re both right, in that they’re both entitled to their opinions,” Jacka said. “The conversation should be about how the employees can sort through their differences without it interfering with work.”

Cooper argued that a manager’s role isn’t so much about being the provider of solutions, but rather the person who helps the solutions emerge. As a manager, fixing the problem involves listening and respecting the views, and then saying to the people concerned, “How would you like this situation to be resolved? What could you do to make it better?”

“To be an observer or listener is so difficult, but that of course is the best way, because often when people have gotten whatever it is off their chest, and they've been able to put into words the frustrations they've been experiencing, that in itself is quite cathartic,” she said.

Don’t advertise which side you’re on. It's very important that at no point managers get in on the fight. As tempting as it might be to vocalise where you fall on the political spectrum, it will likely harm employee relations if you do.

“Even if it's clear to people in the office which side of the argument you would be on, it’s going to make people very fearful that you're going to play favourites if all the sudden they know you’re on opposite sides of a polarising issue,” Davey said. “Don’t lie about things, but you don’t have to be fully candid or transparent as the boss.”

Be curious and find common ground. It’s very easy to be disrespectful if you don’t understand where someone is coming from, which is why Davey advocates for approaching a discussion with curiosity.

“It's hard to be curious and judgemental at the same time,” she said.

Being genuinely curious about why a person believes what they do and asking thoughtful questions to better understand them is likely to result in a civilised discussion rather than an antagonistic debate.

Along those lines, it’s almost always possible to find common ground, no matter how polarising the issue.

“It’s safe to say, ‘Look, what we can all agree on is we need to do things to keep this good economy going,’ or ‘We can all agree that we need to take action to prevent this looming recession,’” Davey said. “You might not agree on the best way to achieve that, but if you can focus on the common ground beneath the two arguments, it’s really helpful.”

Disengage before you lose your cool. At some point, if you think you’re going to lose your cool, the best thing to do is just disengage from the conversation.

Davey pointed out that, while some people have a very high tolerance for debating with one another and can leave a heated discussion on friendly terms, others may not be able to separate the two as easily.

 “If you’re not one of those people, it’s probably best for you to disengage, because you’ll probably get more worked up about it than is necessary,” she said. “In that case, the best thing to do is say, ‘I’m out,’ and walk away.”

Know when it’s time to get back to work. Even productive political discussions can prevent employees from getting down to business. If you notice everyone in the office is discussing current events in lieu of completing their work, you may need to step in and remind everyone to focus on the task at hand.

“At some point, you can say, ‘we’ve got to get back to work’, and that's your prerogative as a manager,” Davey said. “Tell them, ‘OK, this is all very interesting, but we have to get back to making sure we have a company to run in 2020’.”

Hannah Pitstick is a freelance writer based in the US. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor, at Andrew.Adamek@aicpa-cima.com.