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Tools and strategies for taming a politically polarized workplace

Political polarization in the U.S. is almost unavoidable these days. Learn how leaders can keep the peace and reunite a divided workforce

Published: Aug 2, 2023 02:31:52 PM IST
Updated: Aug 2, 2023 02:53:52 PM IST

A significant amount of evidence has surfaced recently that indicates that political ideology now has a major influence on employee behavior at work.
Image: Shutterstock A significant amount of evidence has surfaced recently that indicates that political ideology now has a major influence on employee behavior at work. Image: Shutterstock

At a time when discussions about polarizing politics have become nearly impossible to avoid, business leaders are finding that their role is becoming increasingly important to keep the peace and keep business on track.

Politics and mistrust

Recent surveys show that Democrats and Republicans in United States workplaces may agree on very little these days. They often do agree on one thing: They don’t trust each other. Perhaps the most striking thing in a 2022 PEW Research poll is the extent to which people view someone in the opposing political party as immoral or untrustworthy.

Mistrust runs deep

These feelings of mistrust run deep. Majorities of Democrats, Republicans, and independents who lean toward either party say they do so because of the harm the other side could do to the country.

These feelings are personal. One survey from 2020 found that almost four in 10 people in both political parties would be upset if their child married someone of the opposite political party.

Times are changing

Until now, conventional wisdom assumed that belonging to different political parties and having conflicting political views did not significantly impact employees’ ability and willingness to effectively work together. Perhaps part of the reason lies in the truth of the adage: Religion and politics do not belong in polite conversation.

Political ideology can influence employee engagement and behavior

Yet, times are changing. A significant amount of evidence has surfaced recently that indicates that political ideology now has a major influence on employee behavior at work. Diversity in workplaces now includes diversity of political ideology.

Where previously, diversity in culture, gender, race, and class was viewed as a positive attribute in a company, diversity of political thought is pushing people apart.

Dysfunctional workplace: political polarization

Together, these findings show that diversity of political ideology is leading to dysfunctional polarization in U.S. workplaces—a symptom of problems in the culture at large, but one that needs to be addressed by leaders at all levels.

Also read: Could your political views stymie your career?

In the workplace, trust is critical

In our recent paper, “A new leadership challenge: Navigating political polarization in organizational teams,” my colleagues and I explain why trust is so important in a functioning workplace.

The paper also offers actionable strategies on how leaders can address the thorny issue of political polarization in their own teams and ensure that political differences do not lead to workplace dysfunction. Likewise, practicing compassionate leadership in the workplace is also critical.

Trust is good for business

Trust helps team members feel safe with each other. To trust someone means to be confident that they will follow through on their responsibilities and promises. And trust is flexible. It is something that can be built or broken.

It’s also essential to team success

For a workplace team to be productive, cohesive, and ultimately successful, it is essential that they trust each other. When team members know they can count on each other, and understand that all contributions are welcomed and valued, it can create an environment in which you can experience increases in morale, productivity, and exceptional quality of work product. Trust is good for business. These are just some of the reasons why employees stay loyal to a company. It is this foundation of trust that political polarization chips away. In short, shared political ideology at work can facilitate interpersonal trust. Differing political ideologies can fuel political polarization and distrust.
Some even say “I will not work with them”

To understand how far the political polarization and its consequences has seeped into U.S. organizations, my colleagues and I administered a two-phase survey of more than 400 U.S. managers and professionals in 2019 about their thoughts on working with others with different political ideologies.

That survey showed that this group distrusted people with different political affiliations. But, when we asked again three years later in 2022, we heard managers say, “If I know the other person is Republican and I'm Democrat, I will not work with them.”

Also read: Virtual and hybrid teams with shared values perform better

Mistrust of those with opposing political views

It's not just an abstract concept that “I don't trust this person because he has a different political view or membership in a different political party. It’s because I distrust that I'm unwilling to collaborate or communicate.”

So now we are finding that the dysfunctional situation between the two political parties in the U.S. is now inside corporations, in the behavior of team members, and at a level that can impact how well the business might perform.

Why empathy is important in leadership

In the survey taken before COVID-19, leaders reported that these combined traits made a colleague trustworthy:

  •     Performance
  •     Integrity
  •     Delivering on results
  •     Empathy (a distant fourth)
When surveyed again after people had lived through the pandemic for several years, they reported performance again at number one, with empathy right behind at number two.

Want me to trust you? Empathize with me

What these team members are now saying is “For me to trust someone, I have to believe that the other person shows empathy to me.” People expect colleagues to understand them, have concern for them, walk a mile in their shoes and, perhaps, even belong to the same political party.

The polarized situation we find ourselves in can feel somewhat hopeless, but there are strategies that managers can employ to build trust and regain cohesion in their teams.

Political barriers can hamper cultural efforts

Leaders must not assume difficult events outside will pull the team together. We learned from the pandemic that even natural calamities won’t necessarily cut through political barriers to pull people together.

With that understanding, leaders should take stock of how well they know their team members. Reviewing interactions with each person helps managers get a sense of their level of empathy.

Also read: When it comes to communication from the top, less isn't more

Three strategies to rebuild trust: acknowledge, respect, trust

Responsibility for building or rebuilding trust in the workplace falls on leaders. It is important for them to prepare for the challenge. Before tackling these internal divisions, leaders must understand what is happening in the greater society that can spark discourse among the team.

Acknowledge: Communicate organizational goals, values, and team member contributions

People can still be brought together by focusing on the organization’s goals and values. Our survey showed that job performance continues to be the number one source of trust. As a result, the team leader’s role is one of communicating the goals of the organization in every situation, every occasion, and every opportunity.

Goals and how well the team meets them can be the glue that brings people together, regardless of political differences.

The second part of that same goal is to remind the team about how well each individual is performing. This is something not typically done in American business, but it can be very powerful.

The message is: We are here to work together to accomplish specific goals for our organization that we as a team are very good at. The more leaders acknowledge and communicate individual and team performance, the better chance there is that people may put their differences aside, at least to get the job done.

Respect: Listen to diverse perspectives, build psychological safety

Remember that the age of avoiding difficult conversations in the workplace is gone. Individuals will no longer leave their private lives and private thoughts at the door. It’s important for leaders to manage, but not try to block, these conversations.

Leaders can build rapport by identifying and communicating commonalities between people, by encouraging conversations, and by modeling respectful, empathetic behavior.

Leaders need to determine what tactics work best for their team: a workshop on active listening, one-on-one conversations to encourage empathy, or coaching team members into taking on a leadership role to reduce polarized attitudes.

Also read: Think different — sometimes. Teams succeed when they balance creativity and focus

Trust: Build team culture

To build sustainable trust, you need to build a strong team culture that sustains and nurtures trust. The two previous strategies are important in this regard, but there is more to be done.

As the team leader, the most important step in building such a culture is to continually model trust, empathy, and curiosity. Leaders should allow individuals to share different views and learn from each other.

What leaders say, how they say it, and how they behave, are the most important tools available for navigating political polarization and building a trusting team culture.

Leaders: Moving through political polarization in the workplace

The three overarching strategies — acknowledge, trust, and respect — are designed to influence cognitive and emotional bases of trust. Leaders who follow these steps can humanize individuals in their team. They can create opportunities to remind each side that the others are multifaceted and complex human beings, not single-perspective caricatures.

All on the same team

Although the divisive nature of politics may make things seem hopeless at times, it’s important for leaders to understand that it is not.

Leaders have the ability and responsibility to show the team that even if they have differing opinions, belong to different political parties, or plan to vote for different candidates, they are still on the same team and should recognize how important it is to respect each other in the workplace.

By focusing on the goals at hand and by managing their teams with a level of empathy that they hope to build in return, business leaders can rebuild trust, effectiveness, and their teams.

[This article has been reproduced with permission from Knowledge Network, the online thought leadership platform for Thunderbird School of Global Management https://thunderbird.asu.edu/knowledge-network/]