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Sun 16 Jul 2017 04:32 PM

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When politics invade the workplace

Measuring the cost of political discussion within your organisation

When politics invade the workplace

The world is obsessed with politics at the moment. But while the traditional advice is to steer clear of politics at the office, more than half of office workers in a new survey by the American Psychological Association — 54 percent — say they're talking about it with their co-workers. The habit feeding this public clamor: Some 35 percent of workers report spending more time on news sites and social media to keep up with the latest political news.

It's difficult, and probably too early, to rigorously measure the impact these encounters might be having on productivity, but when asked how they were experiencing them, 40 percent of the survey's respondents listed at least one negative outcome. That included lower productivity (14 percent), worsening work quality (13 percent), stress or tension (26 percent), increased workplace hostility (18 percent), and negative perceptions of co-workers (16 percent).

If productivity has declined, it wouldn't be surprising, said Edward Yost, HR partner for the Society for Human Resource Management. "These are not two-minute conversations," Yost said. "These are 20-, 30-minute, hour-long conversations when you're truly trying to convert somebody to your standpoint." If you're having the conversation in a break room or another public place, you can pull in, even more, colleagues—and burn even more company time.

It's not only the time spent debating who should be running which government. "We're trying to work in more collaborative environments," Yost said. "So often, people, even though they need some piece of information to complete a project, they'd rather pull their own teeth out than talk to people they don't like."

The upside: About 30 percent of the study's respondents reported feeling more connected to co-workers or seeing them more positively. "When people agree with each other, there is bonding around these conversations," said David Ballard, assistant executive director for organizational excellence at the APA.

While many companies might prefer that politics be left at the door, barring these conversations is a losing battle, Ballard said. "They are going to happen anyway," he said. Better to spend the effort fostering a supportive work environment by modeling respectful behavior as managers and stepping in when an issue of intimidation, harassment, or bullying arises.

"It's not just about an election. It's about the culture of the organization," Ballard said. A culture of arguing will mean more arguing—about anything and everything. Employers can't successfully dictate the topics employees can and cannot discuss, he said, but "leaders need to be clear about [what constitutes acceptable behavior], not just about politics but about how people treat each other."

A workplace with clear standards of respect will have more civil conversations, said Jacinta Jiménez, a psychologist and head of coaching at BetterUp, which works with executives to build stronger teams. Managers should make it clear that employees are free to "set boundaries in conversations or [request that co-workers] ask for permission before bringing up politics," she said.

Jiménez cautions against hashing controversial topics online, where "body language, facial expressions, and voice intonations go missing"—taking subtle signals of respect or compassion for them. Plus, she said, "people tend to be more tolerant of someone they know and see communicating directly in front of them."

Then there's diversity—and its complications. Lauded for bringing more perspectives to companies, diversity also "increases the likelihood of conflict and disagreement," Ballard said. Employers need to do more than just hire people with diverse backgrounds. They need to bring them fully into the organization and include them in decision making, he said.

When political discourse is so closely associated with those identities that make people diverse in the first place—their race, religion, gender, immigration status, and so forth—conversations can quickly take a personal, and offensive, turn. Jiménez warned against letting political discussions bring about "covering"—hiding or downplaying aspects of a person's identity. And sometimes, Ballard said, somebody just has to change the subject.

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