Leadership & Management

10 Tips for Tackling Political Polarization in the Workplace and Beyond

Practical advice for avoiding divisiveness and working with people with different views.

November 02, 2022

| by Dave Gilson
wo "I voted" pins on a plain beige background. Cory Hall

You’re not powerless to resist polarization. | Cory Hall

One of the insidious effects of political polarization is how it pushes people away from each other — with damaging consequences on relationships, workplaces, and communities. Yet we’re not powerless to resist these centrifugal forces.

Stanford Business recently interviewed a range of Stanford Graduate School of Business faculty, lecturers, and alumni about ways to minimize polarization. Here are some of their practical tips for individuals and business leaders who are looking for solutions.

1. Understand the roots of political beliefs

I think people don’t view politics as an immutable characteristic; they view it as a choice. The more we learn about moral psychology, we see that a lot of people’s political beliefs are baked in when they’re very young. You could always change your political beliefs but, in reality, that’s much easier said than done.… When you discriminate against someone based on their political beliefs, you could be discriminating based on demographic factors that are beyond their control.
Neil Malhotra, professor of political economy at Stanford GSB

2. Model constructive conflict solving

Leaders in organizations are key to promoting social norms for constructive conflict management — what we call conflict cultures. Leaders’ own conflict styles trickle down to others. So they are role models for how to bring people together and help show how to agree to disagree. Constructive conflict cultures are also good for business. We’ve found that they are related to all sorts of positive outcomes like lower burnout and higher cohesion.
Michele Gelfand, professor of organizational behavior at Stanford GSB

3. Build diverse teams

At the leadership level, [business leaders] can model depolarizing behavior themselves.… Another way is building teams that are from diverse backgrounds. When I say background, I don’t just mean the things that you can see; it goes beyond that and brings in different experiences and viewpoints. These can inculcate you against the effects of polarization and there is growing evidence they are good for the bottom line, too.
Alison Goldsworthy, MS ’17, author of Poles Apart: Why People Turn Against Each Other, and How to Bring Them Together.

4. Get involved — and reward compromise

As voters, we have to start rewarding people who are willing to compromise. Madison said that politics is constant contestation — this time I win and you lose, but next time around you may win and I may lose. We need each other through the entire cycle, and until relatively recently, people seemed to understand that. People who want to see a different kind of politics must get involved. [Former Secretary of State] George Shultz used to wear a tie that said, ‘Democracy is not a spectator sport.’ We treat it as a spectator sport and then complain about what we get.
Condoleezza Rice, professor of political economy at Stanford GSB and director of the Hoover Institution

5. Look for shared values

I think we all have something in our morality that is common. That isn’t to say we agree on everything, but there are aspects of this that are interwoven between us. We all care about family and people who are close to us. There are certain things that are okay to do and there are certain things that are defiling or degrading. We might disagree about what those things are, we may not have the same reaction when we experience them, but there’s something similar going on there.
Ken Shotts, PhD ’99, professor of political economy at Stanford GSB

6. Aspire to public service

It is all the more important that good people who understand the importance of statesmanlike conduct aspire to and assume public service. Our democracy depends on elected officials who are empathetic to the needs of the many, are able to discern and speak truth, and have the leadership qualities that attract followers and influence outcomes.
Jen Miles, MBA ’89, former mayor of Kingman, Arizona

7. Move beyond zero-sum thinking

The economy is something we all benefit from. If it’s possible for us to all benefit, then we can begin to focus on what’s good for us collectively and the common good becomes more accentuated than many more divisive questions. The divisive issues are important. But taking as an initial starting point an area in which we agree, saying, ‘Okay, we can work together in this area,’ then it can be easier to manage some of those other things. Otherwise, we often end up focusing on zero-sum game thinking: ‘Well, if you win, I lose.’
Saumitra Jha, associate professor of political economy at Stanford GSB and project lead of the Stanford Conflict and Polarization Lab

8. Don’t overestimate your rivals’ differences

[K]eep in mind that research indicates that your rival partisans, whether they’re Democrats or Republicans, probably have much less extreme views on average than you think they do. I think realizing that those who disagree with us are not as extreme in many respects as we often assume they are can also be helpful for the way we approach political engagement. It can help us to not give up on persuasion, to keep trying to build broader political coalitions through meaningful and respectful conversation.
Robb Willer, professor of political economy (by courtesy) at Stanford GSB and the director of the Stanford Polarization and Social Change Lab

9. Use your organization to promote cohesion

I increasingly talk about a four-lane strategy for social cohesion. The first lane is taking a more expansive view of how you are thinking about diversity and inclusion within the walls of your workplace, or your company, or organization, so that ideological and viewpoint diversity are given more consideration. The second lane is how you show up in your community. The third lane is storytelling: Can you tell more cohesive stories that are going to foster recognition of one another’s humanity? And then the fourth lane is how you are allocating your dollars…. Can you spend them in ways that foster social cohesion?
Kristin Hansen, MBA ’98, lecturer in management at Stanford GSB and executive director of the Civic Health Project

10. Vote!

The number one thing that people can do to guarantee we have better representation in Congress is to vote in congressional primaries. Roughly 20% of registered voters actually vote in primaries during non-presidential cycles. With such low turnout, oftentimes the most successful electoral strategy is to appeal only to the most rabid members of one’s political base.
— Anthony Gonzalez, MBA ’14, Republican member of Congress from Ohio

For media inquiries, visit the Newsroom.

Explore More