It’s the eve of an election in the midst of a global pandemic. My guess is that when it comes to serving up hot topics, this year your workplace is giving the Thanksgiving table an early run for its money. More company leaders are being prompted to speak up and respond to the shifting dynamics of a world in motion.  As you’ve probably found out for yourself, managing humans through political divisiveness isn’t for the faint at heart.

No matter where you are in the country or what you believe, this moment is complicated. According to Glassdoor’s 2020 Political Survey, 60% of American employees say they have engaged in political discussions at work. Whether you’re in the room or not, your team is talking. If it’s happening and you can’t escape it, you better have a plan of how to navigate it. Now more than ever organizations need a strong example of how to engage in healthy conflict with open conversations.

Wait – what changed?

In the past, companies often made a rule that we don’t discuss politics at work. Just shut it down. Sure, you can still choose to do that, but keep in mind there’s a new generation that’s working with us and for us. For Millennials, transparency, authenticity and inclusivity are key values. Furthermore, given the isolation many workers are experiencing due to the pandemic, the workplace may be one of the few outlets for political discussion.  In 2020, remaining 100% silent on hot topics may not the best policy if you’re looking to thrive as a leader today.

Why does it matter?

Behind the buzzy news alerts are real issues that matter to real people who work for real people, like you.  As Patrick Lencioni points out, “Contrary to popular wisdom and behavior, conflict is not a bad thing for a team.  In fact, the fear of conflict is almost always a sign of problems.”  Remember, Lencioni is talking about healthy and open conflict, not unhealthy and aggressive attacks.  This challenging cultural moment is your organization’s invitation to honor your core values and each other with greater emotional intelligence while maintaining a strong and cohesive workplace culture.

To get better having healthy and open conversations, remember:

Do set the ground rules.

Ground rules are the boundaries you can establish to help your employees engage in potentially divisive conversations especially during a contentious election year. While it’s important to know legally what you’re allowed to do and not do based on your state, in most private workplaces, employees can set basic policy to leave petitions, fund raising, and hanging campaign posters at the door, while still creating space for healthy conversations. Don’t shy away from doing this. Hop on a virtual call with your leadership team and go full force in working through what’s going to be your policy for the rest of 2020.  Yes, this heated political environment will most likely continue through the end of year.

Remember, your goal is that this be another lesson for your team on how to have healthy conflict NOT an opportunity for political education.  How strict your ground rules are may need to reflect how healthy your team currently is. If you’re in a season of repairing trust or just learning how to have healthy conflict, experimenting with political conversations might not be the first place you want to go.

Don’t tolerate bad behavior.

Whether a political conversation or a project conversation, you want your teams to respectfully engage with each other. Teach your team that it’s possible to criticize policies and processes without criticizing your teammate. Remember that your team is made up of humans who are unique and come at the world with different points of view. Healthy conflict requires everyone to be thoughtful and respectful. This looks like following your core values, exercising self-restraint and apologizing if necessary.  Therefore, be tough on bad behavior or personal attacks.  This is not a time to allow the political divide in our country to infiltrate and divide your culture.

Do check your ego.

Without even recognizing it, you’re often driven by your ego and the ego wants to be right. If you always want to be right, you will “protect yourself” by not gaining more knowledge, blocking out other points of view, and not even slightly agreeing with someone else’s opinion because that might attack the safety of feeling right.

It is possible to vehemently disagree with someone while still trying to see where they are coming from and why they feel the way that they do. This takes humility but it is worth it. When you put your ego aside, you keep yourself open to learning. Coming out of the other side, you might still hold the same belief, but at least when you hear and understand somebody else’s point of view, you give yourself the chance to grow in empathy. And if that’s all you gain from the conversation, that’s a lot. Empathy helps you as a leader and as a human being and it grows your relationship with that person.

Don’t forget to listen.

Too many people aren’t truly listening but only waiting for the break in a conversation where they can enter in. In my coaching work, I always encourage leaders to repeat what the person just said to them because it’s going to make them listen. When you respond with “What I hear you saying is this ________”, the person is like “Wow, they are actually listening to me. That’s so rare!” Nine times out of ten you’ll end up with a fruitful and respectful conversation.  The goal is to seek to understand.   Be more curious than certain.

Do remember what matters most.

Everything you do and say reflects who you are as a leader, and that includes how you engage online. If you’re active on social media, just be careful you’re doing it in the same way you’d show up in the workplace. People are watching. You want to continue to be respectful, conscientious and thoughtful about what you’re posting or reposting. If you have that internal voice that says, “Hmm, I don’t know if this is a good idea,” maybe don’t repost it and wait to share something that is a little bit more respectful.

You can always make the effort to frame your post in a way that communicates you know not everyone will agree with you, just remember that you are an authority figure and a leader, and you must model maturity and self-restraint. Whether on Slack, social media or an email, sometimes the words typed behind the armor of a computer screen can come across with more venom than you actually intended. Live conversations give us the opportunity to listen well and be more diplomatic in our approach. Remember, people are harder to hate close up.

Whether you feel it’s unfair or not, the way you act, the decisions you make and what you do online will come back to you, and it will affect the entire team. That’s just the cold hard fact of being a leader. I know several leaders who have made a decision to remain bipartisan in an effort to be more of a moderator when conflict or difficult conversations arise.  When the team sees they aren’t openly backing a horse in the race they tend to allow the leader to be the facilitator.  In the end, you must decide what’s more important to you: that your political view wins or that your human relationships and those of your team are intact?

Don’t give up.

In a crisis, leaders are remembered by how they respond and react. 2020 is a year that’s stretching your leadership abilities to the max, but you will be remembered for years to come by how you’ve shown up, what you’ve said, and the empathy you’ve shown. So, forge ahead! Increase your EQ, be compassionate, have some self-restraint and enter into the conversation.

Final Thoughts:

At the core of today’s culture, many have given up learning from each other and remain fixed on getting others to believe what they believe. Fostering a workplace culture that embraces healthy conflict during this season takes a tremendous amount of intentionality and emotional intelligence. By giving your team ground rules and modeling them well, you will be well on your way to strengthening your culture and unifying your team. And in these divided times, that’s something worth being remembered for. 

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Traci Barrett is Founder & President of Navigate the Journey, a leadership and strategic consulting firm. Traci helps leaders and entrepreneurial companies build their leadership skills, strategize on growing their business and ultimately, realize their full potential. Prior to NTJ, Traci spent over 20 years in the television and advertising industry. She was part of a small team that launched the national cable television network HGTV: Home & Garden Television in 1994. She helped lead the network to success running their Chicago and Dallas Offices for over 17 years. Traci holds a B.A. in Telecommunications & Marketing from Indiana University. She also holds her M.A. in Professional Psychology from the Illinois School of Psychology.

Traci is also a cohost at Overly Human, a podcast about what it means to be human in the workplace. Learn more at https://www.overlyhuman.com/ and listen to each episode wherever you find your favorite podcasts. Catch the episode on Addressing Political Divisiveness in the Workplace here.

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