Peer to Peer: Michael Bush, MS ’94 on How to Keep Presidential Politics out of the Office

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Peer to Peer: Michael Bush, MS ’94 on How to Keep Presidential Politics out of the Office

Lean into corporate values and insist on mutual respect, advises the CEO of Great Place to Work, Inc.
November 6, 2020
Purpose-driven leaders need to know how to unite people who have very different life experiences and perspectives, says Michael Bush, MS ’94. | Photo by Toni Bird

Very few people know more than Michael Bush, MS ’94, does about how to create a workplace where employees feel protected, respected, and inspired. It’s an ideal embedded in the unambiguous name of the company he co-owns and runs: Great Place to Work, Inc.

Each year, Bush’s firm surveys more than 10 million employees in 50 countries, using a proprietary research tool to produce several annual lists for Fortune magazine: “100 Best Companies to Work For,” “World’s Best Workplaces,” “100 Best Workplaces for Women,” and “Best Workplaces for Diversity.”

Since Bush became the co-owner with Dan Whalen, MBA ’80 and the CEO of Great Place to Work in 2015, he has also spent countless hours consulting with various organizations and corporations to help them build “high-trust, high-performance workplace cultures.”

As part of a recurring Stanford Business magazine column titled “Peer to Peer,” in which alumni with questions learn from alumni with answers, we recently reached out to Bush with a specific question: How can a company maintain a peaceful and productive workplace during a time of emotionally charged political partisanship?

The nation’s ever-widening political divide — over things like racial inequality, the COVID-19 pandemic, and, of course, the presidential election — must be finding its way into the workplace, yes?

Definitely. I was on a call yesterday with a large global organization. They have 13,000 employees, and I was talking to their top 2,000 leaders. And of the many things we talked about during the Q&A, this was the topic. This was absolutely the topic. Especially since George Floyd’s murder, this has been the topic.

What do you tell these leaders?

Our starting point is that we’re now dealing with two viruses: COVID-19, which is nine months old, and racism, which is four centuries old. So that makes two topics that they’d prefer not to talk about, but they have to if they are purpose-driven.

I imagine there’s more resistance to talking about racism than to talking about COVID-19.

Absolutely. One objection is, “Well, we don’t really have time to talk about racial injustice. We have to talk about our products and our services and our customers.” But with the pandemic, they’ve already proven that they can make space to talk about something important. For big organizations, everything changed in a matter of weeks as they learned about the virus — at least among those who believe in science. The best leaders have brought in epidemiologists and created hotlines so that their people could get the facts they need to stay safe.

They stepped up.

They showed their people how to modify their behavior, and most workers did. That’s what learning is. The same thing has to happen around racial justice.

Walk us through how that works.

First, they have to talk about it. Many leaders have put out statements that reinforce the matter within their companies’ values: “We believe in social justice.” That’s step one. Step two is to have listening sessions, to find ways of bringing employees together. Because employees want that; they actually want to be able to talk about things that matter, even if it’s done virtually. The tricky part is that people are afraid of saying the wrong thing during these sessions. They don’t want to say something that might frustrate or anger another person — because we’re talking about race, after all.

How do you encourage people to talk?

The goal is to get people to talk about values and purpose but not necessarily about politics.
Michael Bush

We’ve learned the best practice is to use a color scheme — green, yellow, orange, red — so organizations can set ground rules on what you can and can’t say. It begins with what we call green-light comments, which are statements that help bring people together. For instance, and I’m going to use COVID-19 as a model here, someone might say, “I really don’t want to wear a mask. I don’t want to wear a mask, and I need to understand why I must.” That’s a green comment in a listening session. You might be voicing your politics, but you’re asking the question in a way that allows the manager to respond with something informative: “OK, we’ll get you some science on that, and then we can talk about it.” And now you can have a dialogue about it. Someone else might respond, “Maybe you aren’t worried about your health, but I’m worried about mine, and I’d really feel better if you wear a mask.” That’s a green comment. Difficult, but green. Everyone learns.

What’s a yellow comment?

If someone says, “Nobody should be able to tell me to wear a mask. That’s how I feel.” That’s yellow, and it’s a little harder for the manager, who might say, “Is there anything you’d like to learn about masks that would help you?” You want to create an environment where people can express their point of view, and where you can then use the company’s values to determine how to respond.

Orange?

Somebody might say, “No one is going to make me wear a mask. No one.” During a listening session, this would be a trouble spot. Because they are now saying something that can actually affect a lot of people and cause harm. But there has to be room and space for those discussions. It’s similar to someone who thinks a product is substandard and says, “I’m not going to support that product going out the door.” People say that kind of thing all the time. There’s a difference between that and a red comment, which would be, “I don’t care. No one in this company can make me wear a mask. And people who want to make me wear a mask are idiots.” That’s a comment that can get you terminated, because that fractures the organization.

I used the COVID analogy because the pandemic is a bit more black and white, but the process applies to social justice issues also. We recommend that companies lay out similar ground rules for people in advance and use the same format for conversations about racism.

What about political discussions unrelated to the pandemic or racial justice? For instance, let’s say one worker shows up at the office wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat, which is not necessarily racist on its face — it’s just expressing a particular political point of view. And another person comes in wearing a “Dump Trump” hat, and they square off. How does a leader put systems in place to make sure such encounters don’t spin off into something that hurts the business?

Every company has values. And in the values you’ll find words like respect. You’ll find words like care, curiosity, innovation, compassion, empathy. They’ll be prominent on the website of almost any good business. What you want to do is create an environment where people are not only thinking of themselves, but also thinking of others. You want to make sure that everybody feels respected, that everybody feels they’re being dealt with in a transparent way, and that everybody feels things are fair. You also want them to enjoy the people they work with, to care for the people they work with, and to be cared for by the people they work with. You want them to enjoy being part of a team.

So if someone comes to work wearing a MAGA hat, does that contribute to all the things I just mentioned? No. Anyone who does that intentionally in 2020 is now running up against the values of the company, because they know that it’s going to cause anxiety for some people. It is not compassionate or empathetic, and yet they’ve decided to wear it anyway.

I would say the same thing to somebody wearing a “Dump Trump” hat. I would call them on it: “You know there are people here who voted for him. Why would you do that?”

What if one of them says, “This is America, I should be able to wear this hat”?

A leader has to know how to have this conversation. You say, “It is America and you can wear the hat, but there are consequences. You’re trying to make a political statement that you know will upset some coworkers. That doesn’t align with the values of the company. That’s not how we behave in this company.” You use the company’s values to modify that person’s behavior.

Could you envision a setting in which a leader might be able to use those values to create a dialogue between two people who otherwise would never talk, or is that a naively idealistic notion?

That’s why we’ve worked so hard on these listening sessions, which are designed to do just that. It’s harder to be a CEO these days, because if you’re a purpose-driven leader who wants to change lives, change organizations, and change the world, you no longer have the option of saying, “We are not going to talk about any of these things.” The goal is to get people to talk about values and purpose but not necessarily about politics. If people are squaring off at work over politics, the company’s values haven’t been properly communicated or emulated by the leaders.

Politics has no place at work. I definitely believe that. Asking your CEO whom they voted for is an inappropriate question. CEOs shouldn’t feel compelled to answer that. A CEO should instead talk about what they believe in and tie it to the values of the company. Leaders need to know how to convene a group of people who have very different life experiences and perspectives, but who can still collaborate in a way that makes the group stronger. That’s how you create a society that can hold different points of view and how you create a great place to work for all.

— Steve Hawk

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