Don’t Let Politics Poison the Workplace: Some Advice from Business School Experts

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Don’t Let Politics Poison the Workplace: Some Advice from Business School Experts

The political polarization wrought by the 2020 presidential election is bound to creep into the workplace. Here are some ways managers can become peacekeepers.
Illustration of two figures–one red, and one blue–engaged in conflict. Illustration by Tricia Seibold
Unfortunately, few mid-level managers are trained in facilitating combative conversations, says Stanford GSB lecturer Matt Abrahams. | Illustration by Tricia Seibold

No matter who is officially declared America’s next president, many business leaders will have to deal with a wave of anger and disappointment among a certain segment of their employees — and some potentially confrontational gloating among others. Here, six faculty members from Stanford Graduate School of Business offer guidance on how to minimize workplace confrontations.

Steve Callander: Channel the Energy

Steve Callander is The Herbert Hoover Professor of Public and Private Management and a professor of political economy at Stanford GSB.

“Trying to comfort people doesn’t work very well, in that people don’t really want to be ‘comforted,’ and they especially don’t want to be comforted by their boss. So what you don’t want to say is, ‘There, there. I understand. We all win some, we all lose some.’ That’s only going to make them more outraged, and then they’re going to direct their anger at you.

“One thing we learned from studying activist groups is that you’ve got to give your people something to do when those passions get fired up. You want to convey that you understand and empathize with their anger and their emotions, and then give them a channel where they can redirect that energy, but it needs to be something outside the operations of the company. Not busy work, but some sort of non-partisan community engagement.

“It’s easier to do this if your company is already set up with opportunities to volunteer in the community. The more you can use your existing community outreach programs, the better — but that would be more of a bonus than an actual goal.

“What you want to do is acknowledge that you understand and empathize with the anger, but not in a way that causes them to bring that anger into the company. So the second part of this strategy is to use that empathetic connection to build more of a rapport with your workforce, and then to channel their energy into productive uses. You can help to make them feel better about themselves, and about everything, if they’re doing something selfless and useful.

“Above all, do not let people with opposing beliefs fight it out at work. So I recommend against creating forums, whether it’s in person or through online bulletin boards, where you let people express their opinions.

“The fact is that people get fired up at times like this, so you’ve got to give them something to do. Give them a channel for their emotions. They want something to do. Bosses have to appreciate that if they don’t provide a channel or an outlet for their people, and for their anger and this emotion, the people will take it upon themselves to express it within the company. And then you’ve got a big problem.”

Hayagreeva “Huggy” Rao: Look for Common Ground

Hayagreeva “Huggy” Rao is The Atholl McBean Professor of Organizational Behavior and Human Resources at Stanford GSB.

“Is allowing people to express their political opinions at work a useful thing? This is a super difficult question, especially during such an unusual election, because a lot of people right now are driven by fear and anger.

“Then you also have the media sensationalizing the dramatic and the novel, and so constantly you’re being primed. The net result is that people end up depersonalizing each other: The other person isn’t a person, the other person is a category, an object, a thing. Republicans do that to Democrats, Democrats do that to Republicans. It’s symmetrical.

“When you have such polarization, you always have to ask yourself, ‘How much heat is this conversation going to create and how much light is it going to create?’ To me, when a conversation is likely to generate only heat and not light, it is not productive. Because all it does is confirm stereotypes.

“So if people insist on talking about [the election], I would try to foster some kind of perspective-taking. Tell them to try to imagine that they’re the other side. Tell the Biden supporters, ‘Imagine you’re a Trump supporter. Why would you vote for him? Think it through and actually give us reasons why.’ And you tell the Trump supporters the same thing.

“What you’re trying to do by having them articulate those reasons is make them understand that this other person has anxieties and fears just like they do, and that’s why they actually see Trump, or Biden, as a credible alternative. Such conversations are not designed to change people’s minds. They’re designed to make people realize that others are making choices that make sense within their own universe.

“We need to aspire to light, not heat.

“I always go back to my image of two rooms. People are in a room called fear, and we need to bring them to a room called hope. And the real question is, what are the passageways? It’s not clear to me that a political conversation at work is a proper passageway.

“Here’s one simple thing I do: When my PhD students gather every Monday morning, the first thing I ask is, ‘How was the weekend? What did you cook that was interesting?’ And all of the sudden they’re all telling stories: I was making this Korean dish, or I was making this Mexican dish, and on and on and on. And everybody soon realizes that even though we might have different beliefs, actually we’re all kind of doing the same things. People reveal a lot about themselves when they talk about these innocuous things. And all of that creates common ground and common connections.”

David Demarest: Think in Terms of Baby Steps

David Demarest is a lecturer in management at Stanford GSB and the former White House communications director under President George H. W. Bush.

“There’s no question that the country is as polarized as I’ve ever seen it in my lifetime. And I think that business leaders may have a unique opportunity, because of the reach of their constituencies, to play a formidable and positive role in a circumstance like this.

“If you look at institutions across the board — from religion to government to the media — a lot of them have taken a beating in recent years. But many businesses have withstood that negativity, and that puts their leaders in an enviable position. They have additional credibility, which gives them space to lead. And they have multiple constituencies. Employees. Customers. Investors.

“So business leaders aren’t speaking for just one slice of the pie, they aren’t speaking just as a business — they’re speaking as part of the fabric of the country. And they have an obligation to be thinking about all of their stakeholders, and about the community.

When you have such polarization, you always have to ask yourself, ‘How much heat is this conversation going to create and how much light is it going to create?’ To me, when a conversation is likely to generate only heat and not light, it is not productive. Because all it does is confirm stereotypes.
Hayagreeva “Huggy” Rao

“Leadership is paradoxical. Leadership involves listening as well as speaking. It involves being decisive as well as having humility. Those characteristics are very important in a circumstance like this. No business leader is going to be able to intuit everything that is troubling people. They’re going to have to go out and learn, and speak to people, and listen to people, and organize an effort that’s authentic, because any effort like this has to be authentic. We need leaders who say, ‘The status quo in this country is not acceptable. A divided house cannot stand.’

“Start with the big picture: Do we want to solve this problem? Do we agree that it’s a problem?

“And then it’s important to think in terms of baby steps. From my years in government, one of the things I learned about international diplomacy is that you rarely get a diplomatic breakthrough by virtue of the big moment. You get it through small steps of confidence that are built between adversaries. Ultimately, those small steps evolve into larger and larger steps, and that’s how you get across the finish line.

“Which means that, as a leader, it’s important to remember that this is going to take a while. We didn’t get to this point in our country overnight. The polarizing issues have been building for decades, and some of them are more obvious than others. So it’s going to take time, and that needs to be part of the conversation — that there’s no quick fix. There has to be a long-term commitment to that phrase: ‘a more perfect union’ — in other words, making our country a better country.”

Matt Abrahams: Put On Your Facilitator Hat

Matt Abrahams is a lecturer in organizational behavior at Stanford GSB and host of the Think Fast, Talk Smart podcast.

“When it comes to helping leaders manage through this very stressful time, there are a couple of things I think about. To begin, as a leader, you need to first take care of yourself. You have to acknowledge and accept the stress you feel and the challenges you face. So talk to others about it, with family and friends. Give yourself permission to feel uncomfortable.

“At work, you want to set up an environment where your people feel comfortable knowing that it’s OK to be uncomfortable. You need to give your employees opportunities to reflect and communicate. It’s often the case that when something like an election is going on, that we discourage people from sharing, because it can bring tension. But in a world that’s so divided and so stressful — not just over the election, but also with the pandemic and the persistent issues of racial and economic inequality — providing a safe space is critically important.

“The other thing you can do to help employees is remove some of their work-related stress. Maybe certain deadlines can be pushed out. Or, maybe you can encourage people during the day to take a break between their meetings. Just give people some room to process things and to blow off steam.

“That said, many people find solace in focusing on their work at times like this. So I’m not suggesting that you take all of the work away. Just give people more freedom and flexibility.

“Really listening to others is essential. Most of us, when we listen, we listen just enough to get the gist of what somebody’s saying, and then we start judging and formulating our responses. When you listen to be empathetic, it’s very different. You have to be present and focused. A huge way to help with that is through paraphrasing what you hear from people.

“If someone says, ‘Oh, my candidate didn’t win the election because it’s rigged against us,’ you can say, ‘I hear that you’re concerned about the outcome of the election, and many of us feel the same way.’ In so doing, note that you haven’t agreed with their point. You haven’t said, ‘Yes, you’re right, it’s rigged.’ You’re simply communicating that you heard that they’re bothered and that you’re willing to take the time to be present with them.

“It can be hard and challenging, especially when you align yourself with one point of view more than the other. When that happens, I try to put on my facilitator’s hat. A good facilitator doesn’t take a position or side unless it’s absolutely necessary. I just remind myself that my job here is not to take a position. My job here is to facilitate this interaction.

“I think people can sense my political persuasion, but I certainly don’t go around advocating it, because I don’t want people to feel uncomfortable. At the same time, I also want to be authentic. If I were on the losing side of this election, I would let myself be disappointed. I wouldn’t come in and try to put on a fake smile, but I wouldn’t come in ranting or raving either.

“I’m actually in favor of people communicating about these hot button issues and not holing up in their own ideological bubbles. And the workplace is one of the few opportunities for people to talk to others outside their ideological sphere. Unfortunately, most people in leadership positions, especially mid-level managers, don’t have much training in that kind of work — that facilitative, psychological-safety mindset.

“Academia and work are great forums for these discussions, but you need to set up guidelines and ground rules to help you referee these interactions, and that needs to be done by someone who has the skills, experience, and patience to do it. Otherwise, it can blow up.”

Saumitra Jha: Emphasize the Teamwork

Saumitra Jha is an associate professor of political economy at Stanford GSB and cofounder of the Stanford Conflict and Polarization Initiative.

“Four years ago, after the 2016 elections, we held a seminar here at Stanford to think about how to deal with the challenge of polarization in this country. A number of universities tried to create similar forums for discussions at that time and brought in people from different political views to have public conversations. For a number of them, it ended up being a bit of a disaster, but ours was actually reasonably successful.

“We began by having some of Stanford GSB’s Interpersonal Dynamics instructors come in and coach people on how to have difficult conversations. A big part of that is trying to make people understand that they can’t read another person’s mind. Just because someone voted differently than you did doesn’t mean that they consumed the entire salad bar of views that are opposed to yours. They might have voted for one specific reason. And so trying to be a mind reader and impute motives can be very counterproductive.

“A lot of my research focuses on how to help people to become empowered and informed. I believe that people of goodwill, when empowered with the skills to access and evaluate reliable information, are going to reach similar conclusions. This is because we share a lot more of our aspirations for a better society than the things upon which we disagree. So a key question is: How do you empower people to become better consumers of knowledge and information?

“I’m particularly interested in how you can help people learn to evaluate a policy based on non-partisan metrics that encompass everyone’s well-being rather than focusing on the more divisive emotional aspects. One way that you can generate even more cooperation among employees is through finance. Specifically, giving people more ownership in a firm or a broader share index can bring them together in a material sense. It may give them a stronger feeling that they’re working together for the same objective. They’re more likely to ignore their political differences when they are empowered and feel a shared ownership in the output of the team.

“Businesses actually are in a good position to help bridge these divides, because businesses generally have a team structure. There’s a body of research that shows that working together as a team — as a non-hierarchical team in particular — can be effective in supporting cooperation, even when people come from very different initial viewpoints. Everyone who agrees to work for a company does so, to some extent, because they believe in the objectives of the organization. And if everyone is working toward a common goal, and feels ownership in the outcome, that unites them. So emphasizing the team aspect can be very helpful.

“Of course, another approach is to just pretend there’s nothing to see here. But if you ignore these partisan divides, it often just exacerbates the anger and distrust. So creating an environment where you can have these difficult conversations — in a delimited and constructive way — can restore trust. It can help people remember that we’re all humans in this together.”

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