We are living through turbulent times, and political and ideological divisions have intensified in ways that sometimes make civil discourse difficult. Differing views about politics, the best way to handle COVID-19, and racial tensions may drive a wedge between colleagues.
Many organizations are grappling with how to keep societal conflicts from poisoning the workplace environment. While company policy may set clear expectations about political expression and respectful behavior, preventing conflicts driven by ideology may be easier said than done. In addition, customers and vendors may bring their own views into the workplace, and some may express anger or even become aggressive if they feel disrespected.
So how should managers address these conflicts, whether they are overtly about political disagreements or simply fueled by a fundamental suspicion of the other person’s point of view? These suggestions may help:
- Respect differences. The way an employee expresses themselves through clothing or other personal items often influences how they are perceived by others. Tensions may be sparked by something as simple as a bumper sticker on a vehicle or a music choice in the break room. Other sources of friction might include the decor in a person’s home during a remote video meeting or a social media post that is seen by colleagues. Remind employees that overtly political objects or clothing (such as a coffee mug with a candidate’s name) are inappropriate in a work setting. In addition, educate employees on the company’s policies on harassment, and of your expectation that all team members be treated with fairness and respect.
- Monitor difficult relationships. Over time, you may become aware of conflicts simmering between individual employees or cliques. While aggressive actions, such as bullying or spreading gossip, may be subject to disciplinary policy, passive-aggressive or gatekeeping behavior may be more difficult to address. If you feel this behavior is affecting your team’s wellbeing or productivity, contact Human Resources or consult with the LifeMatters Management Consultation Service.
- Address overt conflicts. If you have two individuals or cliques who can barely stand to be in the same room (or video conference), take action. Schedule a private meeting with both parties. Clearly state your expectations for respectful collaboration and outline what actions will be taken if the infighting continues. Consult with HR before taking any disciplinary action.
- Build cohesion. While it may be impossible to create a neutral workplace, particularly if your organization’s business is one that some people perceive as political in nature, it is possible to establish a “safe space” within which your team can operate. Casual events, such as team lunches or game days, are a good way to increase your work group’s cohesion. Emphasize healthy communication and encourage multiple points of view.
While these steps are helpful in creating a positive environment, they are not foolproof, and it is still possible that you or a member of your team may become embroiled in an ideology-fueled disagreement with a colleague, vendor, or customer. When this occurs, the following suggestions for handling confrontation may be helpful:
- Listen. Let the other person state their viewpoint without interrupting. If you start to get upset, breathe deeply and stay calm. Avoiding “knee jerk” reactions will prevent the situation from escalating.
- Ask questions. If the topic is an appropriate one to discuss at work, ask open-ended questions in a non-accusatory tone, such as:
- “What is the source of your information?”
- “How did you come to this conclusion?”
- Restate what you heard. Build an interpersonal bridge by asking the person to elaborate on their point of view. Increased clarity is a pathway to understanding.
- Say what you learned. Acknowledge new information or insights. For example: “I never thought of that. Thank you for explaining.”
- Highlight where your perspectives diverge. Reference factual information where possible, and use “I” statements. Avoid being pulled into a debate.
- Agree to disagree. When exiting the conversation, take the high road. A good closing statement might be, “I appreciate the opportunity to share our viewpoints.”