EAST GREENWICH, RI—The deep divide in public opinion following last November's election offers a challenge and an opportunity for American companies, as harshly opposing political views surface more frequently in the workplace, according to The Society for the Advancement of Consulting® (SAC).
Set Proper Expectations
"Undoubtedly, there are divergent political views, and it is easy for them to surface in the workplace," points out Lisa Anderson, known as The Manufacturing Business TransformerSM and president of LMA Consulting Group, Inc., Claremont, CA. "As business leaders, we must set the expectation that the focus is on business and collaborating to achieve the goals of the organization.
"Of course, this is easier said than done; however, we must remain vigilant. These discussions can derail even the simplest of projects—and, worse yet, tensions and anger rise.
"Get your leadership team together and set expectations—we must be respectful in all communications. Ask them to have the same conversation with their teams. Encourage collaboration and teamwork, raise the bar on expectations in terms of leadership involvement and performance, and re-energize your teams on the vision. Tie rewards to these priorities. If leaders are creating discussion on timely topics to business success, there will be less time and temptation to stray," she said.
Strong Leadership is Critical
Liz Bywater, PhD, leadership expert and author of the forthcoming book, Slow Down to Speed Up, notes "My most successful clients actively foster diversity of thought and robust discussion within their organizations. But in today's hot political climate, discourse can quickly turn ugly. Coworkers may take fiercely disparate positions on passionately held topics and the tenor of discussion can undermine productive discourse. Worse, it can damage relationships and weaken the spirit of collaboration."
Says Dr. Bywater, "Leaders have to deal directly with this. Rather than avoid or ignore the tension, they must be proactive, bold and directive with their employees. No matter how intense the topic, discussion among colleagues is always to remain thoughtful, respectful and professional. Great leaders clearly set the expectation, practice what they preach, and hold people to account."
Common Courtesy, Mutual Respect, and Accountability
Rebecca Morgan, President of Fulcrum ConsultingWorks, Inc. and 2017 inductee into the Million Dollar Consultant® Hall of Fame, says: "Common courtesy. Mutual respect. Accountability. Those 3 characteristics are widely accepted as part of a healthy corporate culture. But what about public dissent? Is it healthy to encourage professional disagreement in meetings, in hallway conversations, in email? I would argue that without an environment of safe professional disagreement, your culture is too nice to thrive long term. Disagreement is real and necessary. If it's not public and professional, it is an undercurrent that undermines trust.
"But all employees have personal lives too, and dissent exists in personal conversations as well. Civil civic discourse has become an oxymoron for too many. As leaders, manufacturing company executives are responsible for the culture of their organizations. Allowing the miserable behavioral shift happening on TV and the Internet to invade company culture is a major misstep. To over-react by becoming "too nice" is equally, but differently, damaging. We're back to the basics: Common courtesy, mutual respect, and accountability."
Transforming Conflict into Illumination and Understanding
"Difficult conflicts arise from deeply different political views; however, any conflict is an opportunity to build new levels of understanding and trust," says Alan Willett, a leading expert in the business of technology and author of the recently published book, Leading the Unleadable.
"Our job as leaders is to model and nurture ways that build that trust. I insist that in conversations like this, we always look for each persons' interest - their why - that is underneath their position. It is most important that people truly listen with the intent to understand the other person and their interests," he said.
"Leaders must set the tone. In my experience, the best leaders set expectations and model this behavior. The conflicts don't disappear, but the heat leads to greater illumination for all," Willett said.
Generosity is Contagious
"Use employee engagement days as one of your tools to manage opposing viewpoints," states Karen Eber Davis, author of 7 Nonprofit Income Streams and president of Karen Eber Davis Consulting, a Sarasota, Florida firm that helps businesses create exponential gains with philanthropy. "By their nature, give-back days compel co-workers to practice generosity and interact in fresh ways. Since generosity is contagious, build on this opportunity to educate employees on how to extend their generosity to colleagues who hold diverse beliefs."
Davis goes on to say, "Assume opposing viewpoints exist. Structure your events accordingly. Teach the day's ground rules. Include materials on how to conduct civil conversations. Engage your employees in practicing how to listen to other's passions, whether they are the cause you are serving or political views. Involve everyone in a hunt for common ground."
Conversational IQ and Workplace Political Views
Dr. Maynard Brusman, a consulting psychologist, executive coach, and emotional intelligence/mindful leadership expert, notes that a polarized workforce contributes to disengagement. "Company leaders need to create a respectful and inclusive work culture where there is a non-dogmatic mixing and matching of innovative ideas, and rise above traditional liberal or conservative political fixed mindsets."
According to Dr. Brusman, "When we are inflexible and attached to our point of view, we are unable to connect with others' perspectives. If we did, we would realize how differently they see the world. Yet our brains pick up the lack of connectivity, and switch on a stronger need to persuade others we are right. Human beings have a strong addiction to being right."
Dr. Brusman advises clients, "Practice being less reactive and develop trust by being interpersonal savvy, and more tolerant of the viewpoints of others in the workplace."
Reinforce Key Brand Values and Messages
The current situation affords companies an opportunity to reinforce their core brand values, according to Linda Popky, president of Redwood Shores, CA-based strategic marketing firm Leverage2Market Associates, and author of the book Marketing Above the Noise: Achieve Strategic Advantage with Marketing That Matters.
"In today's environment, there's plenty of opportunity for anger, frustration, bias, and even hate. That's why organizations need to review their core brand values and ensure they reflect messages of tolerance, inclusion, and respect.
"This is also a great time to increase communications in order to reinforce these key messages to customers, employees, and suppliers. One way to be heard above the noise is to take a position that sets a high bar for dignity, respect, and tolerance," she said.
Time for Formal Policy
"In today's polarized, single-agenda world, most workplaces are best served by a formal policy, such as: 'We respect the right to express views about political and social issues but not in a manner that is disturbing, threatening, or offensive to others. If we find abusive speech is being used in the workplace, we will take appropriate action, which may include termination in certain circumstances. Please respect your colleagues' right to their personal views and do not attempt to impose your own on them,' " said SAC CEO Alan Weiss, PhD.