De-Politicizing the Work Environment

De-Politicizing-the-Work-EnvironmentThis letter to a national news columnist describes an employee’s stress over what he describes as near-constant political discussion at work, not surprising, perhaps, given its prominence in the media.

The columnist offers advice to the employee about how to even-handedly discuss with fellow employees a preference to not hear the political rhetoric, and even to force the attention of the company’s Human Resources department if he feels the situation is stressful enough.

But of particular interest to us as leaders is a statistic that the columnist quotes from the American Psychological Association, saying that  for a quarter of all employees, “workplace political chatter was having some negative impact on them, from increased stress to decreased productivity”.

So while the letter-writer might seem to be an overly sensitive anomaly, it turns out he’s not. As leaders in our workplaces, we need to be alert to this situation and help to head off some of the negative effects that can arise when any stressful situations – not just political ones – are allowed to fester.  But how to draw the line in a way that does not exacerbate an already-tense situation?

First, what’s your rationale for taking any action?  Today’s political dialogue is not a white-glove affair. It is not often characterized by respectful listening to all sides of an argument. It is not even necessarily expected to be informed by fact. It is frequently combative. It sets up dynamics of taking sides, difficulty and discomfort in expressing legitimate disagreement, labeling, and disrespect. These are not behaviors you want promulgated into your business decision-making, and this creates a useful touchstone for your line of reasoning with your employees. Have a candid conversation with employees about the tone that the political chatter is setting in the work environment, and why that tone runs counter to everything all of you believe is important to sustain in order to have a healthy workplace.

Consider options. Shutting down political talk is one option, and it should be on the table. But in a small and generally respectful work group, there might be an interesting alternative. Are there some simple norms that can be agreed to regarding political discussion?  For example, any person has the right to say, “not today, thank you”.  Or everyone who voices an opinion must ask if others have another point of view. Or, as in a business discussion, the speaker can be challenged to present his evidence. If the group can create and adhere to its own norms around political discussion, it may bring down the stress level – and the most egregious abuses of political diatribes. If trying this option, give it a trial period and review to see whether it is really working. If it works, who knows?  You may set a new model for the country!

Find ways to spread accountability. There are two edges to this sword. As evidenced by the letter to the columnist, the people who feel most stressed by workplace politicization feel disempowered.  And for those people, you’ll need to provide a little cover by evening out the playing field.  But to the extent possible, accountability has to rest with each person, to an overriding set of both internal values and company norms. Take time to remind people of those. Especially, compliment people when they demonstrate attention to that accountability, for example by shutting down a toxic conversation, or when they step in to defend someone’s right to an alternative point of view, or when they ask for the data to back up a claim.

Shut down unacceptable behavior. You are both the role model and the rule keeper. You set the tone in your own work environment. So whenever you see political chatter devolve into expressions of bigotry, or disrespectful behavior toward others, or harassment, or any other behaviors you would find intolerable in other circumstances, close them down quickly. Remind people this is not about the politics; it is about workplace and personal civility, and these are standards you will enforce at work.

Check the temperature. From time to time, it pays to check in with employees. Uncomfortable situations often remain underground unless someone asks about them. A simple, “How would you rate the health of the work environment on a scale of 1 – 10?” can open a dialogue about what might cause an employee to rate it more highly.

Paying attention to employee stressors is part of every leader’s job. What we can’t always predict are what new ones will emerge, sometimes pushed into the workplace from outside. So add ‘political stress’ to your watch list as you do your rounds in your work environment. Any signs of difficulty coping with too much political chatter?


Written by Marge Combe, VMC Consultant

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