Is Your Workplace Ready for Post-Election Strife?

It’s possible that the post-election period in offices will be peaceful, and it’s also possible it will be filled with tension. A recent article in Harvard Business Review by Bob Feldman highlights how companies can head off contentious interactions while still keeping a dialogue going.

The editorial advisor on my publication shocked me last week when he said we should consider doing a piece on how healthcare practices, which we write about, should secure their offices in the post-election period. This editorial advisor foresaw riots, while a company that advertises in my publication joked that we may need to hold a news brief about her company for a later issue if there is a post-election revolution.

It shocked me because I hadn’t been thinking with so much pessimism. I knew the election would be polarizing, but I didn’t think violence was likely in its aftermath. If my editorial advisor is correct, and rioting or other violence is likely, then heated arguments and interactions between employees also is possible.

Feldman notes a recent initiative, The Dialogue Project, in which business leaders are encouraged to help contribute to a civil discourse in our society, and presumably within the walls of their own companies. Feldman points out the findings of a survey rolled out by The Dialogue Project about discussion of controversial topics: “More than 70 percent of the 1,000 American respondents said it is hard for them to talk about those topics with people who may hold opposing views. Some 82 percent of Americans surveyed also said that people should be more respectful in civic conversations. Yet 50 percent also said, ‘Not me,’ when asked if they’d be willing to invest more time in pursuing such engagement. Only 25 percent of survey respondents said they had willingly discussed hot-button issues with a person likely to have a different viewpoint.”

Some companies are taking their own steps internally to facilitate peaceful and respectful conversations. Feldman writes of the Courageous Conversations series at General Mills in which “employees gather to listen to a speaker and then break into tables of 10 people. Each table is assigned an employee-facilitator who is trained to keep the discussion both respectful and on point.” You might think many would shy away from having potentially uncomfortable conversations, but the Courageous Conversations series is picking up steam: “The first Courageous Conversation attracted only 30 participants. Now the conversations attract as many as 3,000 employees and are conducted online. Employees report ‘bringing home’ the techniques learned through Courageous Conversations to smaller gatherings and even to family dinners.”

My own advice is to avoid saying political conversations are prohibited. Doing so may result in pent-up anger and frustration that will come out in passive-aggressive ways and whispering in cliques. Instead, managers should be guided to emphasize the importance of staying respectful and calm (no yelling and certainly no physical contact) whatever the conversation—political or otherwise. One tactic managers could suggest to employees to guide any conversation is to put a cap on the back-and-forth argument once it is no longer productive. That point would be when each person has stated their viewpoint, and made it clear to the other person that they feel passionately about their position and do not intend to change their mind. Employees would be directed at that point to smile and “agree to disagree.” A hypothetical script for employees might sound something like this: “Well, Shirley, it looks like we feel very differently about this! The good part about our country is we’re both entitled to our opinions. Let’s agree to disagree about this. There are certainly many other things for us to talk about.”

Employees also could be taught the art of the conversation pivot, in which you gracefully change the subject without dismissing the other person. Here is a hypothetical example of what one employee could say to another who just expressed an opinion vastly different from her own, which she finds offensive: “Oh, that’s interesting. I’ve noticed people are starting to care a lot more about issues. The election turnout this year was really impressive. I’m glad so many more people are starting to get involved.”

It’s possible the person who expressed the opinion the other person found hard to take will persist, but at least an attempt to keep the peace was attempted. If the employee with the strong opinion won’t let it go, a good response might be: “Why do you feel that way?”

When you stop to ask why another person feels the way he or she does, rather than just being outraged by it, you may find—shockingly—that you have something in common. You may not agree about what to do about that feeling the two of you have in common, but now you have a good place to start a (civil) conversation.

What does your company do to help employees have civil conversations, so the bonds between co-workers are strengthened without anyone becoming angered or feeling alienated?

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