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How to Handle Political Disagreements in the Workplace

Fostering respectful dialogue among politically diverse teams


KEY POINTS

Adopt a nuanced approach: While a complete ban on political discussions might seem appealing, it can be counterproductive. While these discussions should not be incentivized, organizations should promote a respectful environment that embraces diversity and does not tolerate abuse.
Set clear boundaries and expectations: Establish clear guidelines for respectful engagement in political discussions. Define offensive behavior and emphasize the importance of active listening, respectful disagreement and finding common ground.
Leadership intervention is crucial: As a leader, model open-mindedness and de-escalate heated conversations. Address inappropriate comments publicly and be mindful of your own biases to maintain inclusivity and respect for all team members.
Political disagreements
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JAMS Pathways Editors

Picture this: You’re at lunch with co-workers when a colleague makes a scene and loses their temper during a political discussion. Emotions are high, more people join in and the nature of the exchange gets personal. Some try to intervene, but the tension remains even after the immediate conflict subsides. The rest of the afternoon is shrouded in uncomfortable silence.

Unfortunately, this scenario is all too common. It’s even very likely that you’ve experienced such an episode yourself, as studies show that a staggering 80% of employees have engaged in political discussions with colleagues, while 50% said they had seen a political conversation turn into an argument at work.

We're all shaped by the world around us. Political issues—from health care to social justice—deeply impact our lives. These same issues can also infiltrate the workplace, affecting our relationships with colleagues, stoking job anxiety and even increasing the risk of depression.

The past few years, marked by social unrest and a global pandemic, have seen a rise in heated political conversations. As a manager, ensuring optimal productivity and a healthy team dynamic requires a well-defined strategy for navigating these political disagreements. In this article, we’ll give you some pointers on how to resolve political conflict in your workplace so that employees both feel safe expressing themselves and can maintain their focus on work.

Political-Free Isn't Problem-Free

While a blanket ban on political talk at work might seem like a simple solution, especially during election seasons, it can be counterproductive. Enforcing such a policy is not only difficult, but it can also be perceived as suppressing free speech, leading to decreased employee morale and even turnover. Recent examples, like Basecamp's complete ban on political discussion, highlight the potential negative consequences of this approach.

While you can certainly redirect the focus to work-related topics, taking a more nuanced approach to the topic can be more beneficial in the long term. Remember, current events are on everyone's mind. Politically charged conversations are bound to happen, leaving it up to leaders to decide how to respond.

Set the Rules for Engagement

The focus should be on establishing clear boundaries. Let employees know that if they choose to discuss political topics, the conversation should always remain respectful. Define very clearly what constitutes offensive behavior in your employee handbook, and make sure everyone understands it.

Furthermore, productive discussions about political issues require a willingness to understand each other and find common ground. You can make it clear to your team that this should be a requirement to engage in such discussions. Your role isn't to teach them about politics, but to equip them with the skills to navigate these sensitive issues and address any lack of those skills. Here are a few ways you can do that:

Promote Active Listening

If your team is engaging in political discussions, encourage team members to always practice active listening by allowing others to speak freely and then summarizing their points back to them for confirmation.

Respectful Disagreements

It's OK to disagree, but team members should always do so respectfully. For example, you can request that they focus on policy, not personality while making it clear that personal attacks won’t be tolerated.

Focus on Common Ground

Encourage employees to find common ground during political discussions. This shifts the focus from differences to shared values, reducing the potential for conflict.

Prioritize Empathy

Let them know people come first and that they should prioritize understanding the person behind the opinion. Our political views are shaped by our life experiences, so you can encourage questions that provide insights into each other's backgrounds and journey to try to bridge the gap between two or more employees. Understanding the why of a person’s opinions is a great way to foster empathy and a human perspective on divisive issues. Team building activities can also contribute to a sense of connection, reminding them that even if someone on the team is voting differently from them, they can still respect that person.

Handling Political Discussions as a Manager

If you're already committed to inclusive leadership and cultural attunement—meaning you don't exclude anyone from opportunities based on their background, race or religion—you can view political stance as just another facet of diversity. Just as you would do with these other subjects, championing tolerance and inclusiveness doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be ready to intervene and shut down abuse. Here is what you can do to help maintain professionalism during political debates.

Model Calm and Open-Mindedness

While you might avoid talking about political subjects altogether, you may be drawn to intervene as a manager. Actively listen and use "I" statements when engaging in political discussions, even in informal settings. If you have revealed your personal leanings, avoid interactions with team members who have different political viewpoints that might imply your stance is superior.

De-Escalate When Needed

Be prepared to gently redirect team members prone to inflammatory statements. While open communication is important, preventing heated debates is crucial. Recognize when a conversation is getting out of hand, and calmly redirect the focus back to work tasks.

Address Inappropriate Comments Publicly

When an inappropriate comment is made, you should always make clear to the participants that the comment was out of line, as it’s important that you don’t give tacit permission for people to speak that way. Follow up privately with the person who made the comment, underlining the commitment to inclusivity and respect within the organization. While it may sound harsh, it’s important you make clear that the behavior will not be tolerated.

Be Extra Careful With Your Own Bias

In the case where a direct report doesn’t share your political inclinations, do not abuse your position by holding their views against them—even on a subconscious level. Be mindful of your interactions, and remind them that, for example, their evaluation won’t be negatively impacted by their political stance. 

Seek External Help for Complex Conflict

While the strategies outlined above can effectively manage most political conflict in the workplace, some situations can become deeply entrenched, often due to the complex and recurring nature of interpersonal conflict that may extend beyond political differences. In these instances, both managers and organizations often overlook the valuable resource of external professional help.

JAMS Pathways Conflict Prevention and Resolution Program offers a comprehensive solution for companies facing such challenges. Our experienced facilitators, trained in neutral conflict mediation techniques, possess a proven track record of successfully navigating even the most complex situations. By providing professional conflict resolution services, tailored solutions and a focus on long-term impact, JAMS Pathways helps companies address the root causes of conflict, rebuild trust and ultimately create a more harmonious and productive work environment.

If you’re not sure if you should enlist external help, see our article “Signs Your Organization Needs a Neutral Third Party to Resolve Conflict and Reasons Why a Neutral Facilitator Is a Good Idea. 

You can view political stance as just another facet of diversity. Just as you would do with these other subjects, championing tolerance and inclusiveness doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be ready to intervene and shut down abuse.

Conclusion

Political conflict examples are common in the current landscape, and they pose a challenge to maintaining workplace peace. But there are benefits that can be drawn from having a politically diverse team. According to the Harvard Business Review, “Diverse teams are more likely to constantly reexamine facts and remain objective. They may also encourage greater scrutiny of each member’s actions, keeping their joint cognitive resources sharp and vigilant.” This can be an asset to teams with responsibility, given that conflict is managed.

Another undeniable benefit is that being exposed to someone with different political opinions can be a catalyst for personal growth. Especially in today's self-reinforced echo chambers, engaging with diverse perspectives offers a chance to learn and grow, whereas disengaging from those with differing views often achieves the opposite.

In conclusion, when conflict is managed, embracing diversity and fostering effective conflict management can be a doorway to unlock a team's true potential. By creating an environment where respectful dialogue and open-mindedness are encouraged, teams can leverage the power of diverse perspectives to drive innovation, sharpen critical thinking and, ultimately, bring out the best in each member. This not only benefits individual growth, but also fuels collective success, making conflict management a crucial tool for building high-performing and resilient teams in today's complex world.

Disclaimer:
This page is for general information purposes. JAMS makes no representations or warranties regarding its accuracy or completeness. Interested persons should conduct their own research regarding information on this website before deciding to use JAMS, including investigation and research of JAMS neutrals.
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