Don’t ban “politics” at work

As political polarization intensifies and companies measure the risks of employees’ internal political activism, some choose to ban political discourse at work altogether. The authors, experts in speaking out at work, explain the pitfalls of this approach and instead suggest asking another question: How to support employees and encourage them to manage the difference, respect each other, listen and learn? The answer, they suggest, requires four actions on the part of leaders: developing empathy and respect for the views of others, inviting different perspectives into the fold of leadership, accepting mistakes gracefully, and teaching people how. to disagree.

“Speak!” “Bring your whole being to work! This invitation (or is it an order?) Has been ringing the halls and Zoom calls of many organizations over the past few years. Executives should hardly be surprised when employees take the invitation at face value and speak out on political issues close to their hearts: climate change, human rights issues in the supply chain, sexism and racism.

But the leaders are worried because political conversations in the workplace carry many risks. In our research on employee activism, we have found that leaders fear that these discussions will become ungovernable or toxic, create discord in the workplace, distract people from their jobs and thus undermine productivity, or lead people to withdraw. fight for union recognition and thus usurp authority from the executives, which could in turn turn into a public relations fiasco.

The result is that some organizations have banned such conversations altogether. There seems to be enthusiasm for such a strategy: according to one Harris Poll, for example, 70% of Americans say they would support company-wide policies that limit discussions about workplace policy, and according to Glass door, 60% of American employees think that discussing politics at work is unacceptable. Meanwhile, YouGov in Germany said 44% of workers thought it was inappropriate to talk about politics at work.

But banning political speech has consequences. Recently CEO of Basecamp Jason Fried announced a number of policy changes, including that there would be “no more societal and political discussions on our corporate Basecamp account”. In a few days or so a third of its employees have resigned and Fried finally apologized. Basecamp was on the heels of another controversial topic to prohibit on political speech, by Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong, who also successful in the loss of a number of employees.

Instead of instituting a ban or seeking to diminish voices in search of political change, leaders would be better served by creating a culture that manages political differences in the workplace more productively. Let’s see why and how to do it right.

The disadvantages

Prohibiting political discourse is fundamentally implausible because it is impossible to draw a clear and objective line between what counts as “political” and what is not – or which issues are “acceptable” to discuss because they are related. to the mission of the company and which are not t.

The problem is that the types of issues discussed in the political sphere often have an impact on the goals and functioning of the company. Take, for example, a retail CEO we spoke to recently. He found himself embroiled in a heated debate with employees who wanted him to speak publicly about a sexist remark made by an industry commentator, when he was reluctant and felt overwhelmed. He could have simply banned the discussion, dismissing sexism as a “political” issue. But sexism was linked to the company’s mission, which was based on the patronage of women (their first clients) and on a reputation enabling it to attract and retain key talent. The CEO chose to speak out as his employees had urged him to do. What could have been a potentially explosive situation with walkouts and fury in the local (and even national) press was resolved without drama. In political debates, it is the ability to defuse situations that is often the hallmark of success.

The ban on politics can also backfire in two ways:

First, employees may not like it. The theory of Transactional Analysis psychology helps explain why: When a “critical parent” sets the law, they frequently get a “rebellious child” response in which the berated party lashes out. A business leader forbidding difference talk is likely to push difference underground only to explode – as with the widely publicized mass exodus at Basecamp.

Second, if your rule is accepted, you may end up with a lot of “compliant child” behaviors: a minefield of employees expecting you to give increasingly detailed instructions on what is. authorized and what is not authorized and arbitrate whenever the unexpected arises. up.

We are not suggesting that there are not situations where a leader must use his power of position to set limits. Obviously, it may be necessary for leaders to intervene if employees are harassed or if debates have become aggressive. But that shouldn’t be a default reaction. Instead, we believe there is a considerable gap between the two extremes of a total ban and letting political discourse run wild.

The right way to deal with political difference

If your gut response is to ban political discussions, we suggest you ask a different question: How can we support employees and encourage them to deal with difference, to respect themselves, to listen and to learn? In fact, it’s a question worth asking regularly anyway because innovation, safety, motivation, agility, and performance all depend on the answer. In transactional analysis terms, this alternative approach is called “adult-to-adult inquiry,” in which people view a problem – and its differences – in a careful and curious way.

Leaders who wish to strengthen their organization’s strength for this approach to political dialogue should focus on four elements:

Develop empathy and respect for the opinions of others. Leaders who wish to develop political empathy in their organizations need to establish spaces where employees can informally learn from each other and find ways to negotiate their boundaries and differences – learning to be different from each other while at the same time having enough mutual respect to get along. work in hand. We’ve seen bosses bring in homemade (or not) cakes to encourage impromptu discussions or Zoom meeting agendas that include a few minutes for attendees to explain something unprofessional that they find difficult or are proud of.

These conversations may seem small, but political empathy and respect grows through the daily sharing of personal stories and vulnerabilities and when we can see beyond the usual labels and judgments we apply to others.

Invite different perspectives into the fold of senior management. The next step is for leaders to actively invite the difference into their own perspectives. In our research on tell the truth to power, we found that people valued their own opinion about a third more than that of others and that leaders often live in an insurance bubble thinking they know what matters to others even when they don’t. not the case. This fits with the “strong leader” trope that is prevalent in organizations, business schools, and society which equates leadership with control, strength, and one single truth or vision.

It takes skill and self-awareness for leaders to accept different opinions. A leader we worked with introduced a formal devil’s advocate role in their teams, where at every meeting someone is tasked with being the voice of the opposition. In an organization where leaders are seen as considerably more powerful than line staff, we were invited by the HR manager to put together the unofficial story on employee speaking and listening experiences to share. with the management team.

Accept mistakes with elegance. Political dialogue cannot take place if everyone must always be perfectly articulate, polite and true to the message. Our research shows that the two main reasons we stay silent are because we fear being viewed negatively and worry about bothering or embarrassing the other person. But it often happens that the more passionate people are about something, the less they express themselves.

As role models for the rest of the organization, leaders in particular should ask themselves: How are employees received when they speak out but are inarticulate or incompetent to do so? Is the reaction likely to lead them to learn and try again or will they shut up? By coaching leaders on mindfulness techniques, we have helped them be more aware of their reactions and choose more productive responses.

Teach people to disagree. Developing the ability to disagree has benefits beyond the company’s ability to cope with political difference – it is integral to the organization’s ability to innovate.

To make their people more comfortable with conflict, leaders need to model disagreement and disagreement well. In a company we work with, leaders are open with employees about conflicts that exist at the board level and explain that these disagreements (and their successful resolution) are essential to performing well.

To disagree well, organizations need to understand that disagreement only becomes destructive when it is perceived by one or both parties as an existential battle where “I’m right” and “you’re wrong”. One organization we work with drew on the field of mediation for its executive training around conflict. There the emphasis is on making sure that the other party feels that you have fully understood their case before presenting yours, especially if you are in a higher position.

If you have the urge to ban political discourse in your organization, it may indicate that the organization cannot handle the difference and the challenges – a bad sign for the company’s ability to be agile and innovative. Before banning certain conversations, check to see if you’re trying to cover a gap in any of the four areas above. If you are, the ban is just a band-aid; what lies below still needs your attention.

About Timothy Ball

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