Politics… it’s everywhere. The belligerent rhetoric coming from every talking head has split us in two warring camps. Any social gathering can become a battleground. Meghan McCain used her father’s funeral to publicly attack Donald Trump. Perhaps John McCain would have wanted it that way. But if not at a funeral, where and when can we find a break from politics?
Unfortunately, not at work and not now. Between the 2016 presidential election and the all-important 2018 midterms, our political passions show no sign of cooling off. We take them with us to work, too, and we are paying the price.
The American Psychological Association released a report titled “2017 Work and Well-Being Survey: Special Focus on Politics.” The report compares data collected from two identical surveys in September 2016 and in May 2017. While the number of people who talked politics at work increased only slightly—from 48 to 54 percent—the number of those suffering negative consequences has risen sharply—from 27 to 40 percent:
“Half of the post-election survey respondents (54 percent) said they have discussed politics at work since the election, and for 40 percent of American workers, it has caused at least one negative outcome, such as reduced productivity, poorer work quality, difficulty getting work done, a more negative view of coworkers, feeling tense or stressed out, or increased workplace hostility. This is a significant increase from the pre-election survey data, when one in four (27 percent) reported at least one negative outcome.” (“2017 Work and Well-Being Survey: Special Focus on Politics” by American Psychological Association, May 2017)
In all likelihood, these numbers are even worse today. According to the survey, talking politics at work creates exactly the kinds of problems we’ve been trying to solve on this blog. Take a look at some of the stats:
As a result of political discussions at work,
15% of employees said they have had difficulty getting work done, and
14% said they have been less productive.
13% said their work quality has suffered.
22% have felt more cynical and negative at work.
26% have felt tense or stressed out.
As if office politics and lack of trust in management weren’t enough, political tensions are making it increasingly harder for people to work together. According to the May 2017 survey, as a result of political discussions at work,
16% of employees have a more negative view of coworkers,
16% feel more isolated from coworkers,
17% feel teamwork has suffered,
18% feel workplace hostility has increased, and
24% avoided some coworkers because of their political views.
On the bright side, 30% feel more connected to coworkers and 29% have a more positive view of them. So, do benefits outweigh the risks?
If you’ve argued about politics with family and friends, you know what this means. You feel more comfortable around people who agree with you politically, and less comfortable around those who disagree. Not exactly an open and inclusive atmosphere you were hoping to create within your team.
While a political majority at the office might bond together, things can quickly get toxic for those on the fringe. This is what happened to a math professor when a group of his colleagues discussed sexual assault allegations against the Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh:
“I made a joke about ‘credible proof’ and ‘non-credible proof.’ Just a play on words, in the sense that we’re not senators, we’re mathematicians, and we’re only interested in a real proof. I was told it was no joking matter, and I better shut up before anyone suspected I supported the evil nominee… I instantly started looking for a tree I could climb to sit out the rest of the conversation…”
The APA survey suggests the professor is not alone. Between November 2016 and May 2017, about one in six employees has experienced strained relationships as a result of political discussions at work.
As a manager, what can you do to preserve your people’s sanity and good will towards one another? How can you defend productivity, quality, and positive thinking, beat stress, and get them to work together despite political winds blowing in your face?
Let’s start with what not to do.
On Friday, November 11, 2016, Google dedicated its weekly all-hands meeting to the outcome of the presidential election. Someone eventually leaked a video of that meeting to the media, and the world found out what Google thought of Donald Trump being elected President of the United States of America.
One by one, top executives, starting with Sergey Brin, took the podium to denounce Trump and offer condolences to fellow democrats. One executive cried and quoted Hillary Clinton. If you were a republican sitting in that room, you too would be looking for a tree to climb. You would no longer feel welcome among your coworkers.
To Google’s defense, the vast majority of its workforce, especially those in Mountain View, CA, lean left. CEO Sundar Pichai tried to strike a more conciliatory note and include politically conservative employees, but his voice drowned in the chorus of grief-stricken democrats.
The biggest takeaway for me as a manager was this: don’t make a spectacle of your political convictions. Use your common sense. Do you want your employees, especially those on the other side of the barricades, to follow your example? Do you want to build up the echo chambers or play them down?
If you must disclose your politics, tread the subject lightly. You know your opponents will hold it against you no matter how moderate or well-reasoned you are. Don’t try to win them to your side. Instead, get to know them as individuals and build a solid working relationship that can weather a difference of beliefs.
There’s also something you can do to quell a virulent strain of partisan bickering at your office—look beneath the surface. Why has this particular employee chosen this specific time to get all political? I know, I know, he’s been watching too much Fox News or MSNBC. What else has been going on in his life and work?
Part of the appeal of politics is that it’s a perfect front for our personal struggles. Don’t like your boss? Blame it on Donald Trump. Have a hard time getting a project started? Pile on the obstructionists in the Congress. We’re not helpless victims of mass media. We’re brilliant escape artists. We perform mind-boggling stunts to get ourselves off the hook by any means available. And politics is the distraction we crave to convince everyone that it’s not about us. It’s the ultimate high-ground maneuver.
Partisan politics is here to stay. If your employees have trouble leaving their politics at home, give them a hand. Model the behavior you want to see at the office. Another election is around the corner. Have a strategy to keep yourself and your people focused on work. It may include time off to vote, celebrate their win, or mourn their loss. Be there for your employees, without taking sides. After all, what they really need is to be seen, be heard, and be loved.
If you want an escape from politics, you might like my book, because it has none.