Keeping Political Friction at Bay in an Election Year
Few utterances will send your next planning session plunging into chaos faster than this innocent question: “Did anyone see the debate last night?”
Politics are poisonous to productivity precisely because passion polarizes, and doubly so in a presidential election year, when the heat of the media spotlight somehow manages to transform even apolitical innocent bystanders into American Ninja Warriors for <insert candidate here>.
Little wonder that much of corporate America has made political discourse verboten during work hours. The corporate concern these days, unlike a century ago, is not that overworked, underpaid employees will strike or form unions, but rather that a prolonged Hillary harangue or Donald Trump dust-up in the trenches will slow fulfillment and undermine the stock price.
For meeting planners, political digressions can run the gamut from unproductive timewasters at best to heated and divisive confrontations that embarrass onlookers and sap team morale.
What’s more, once opened, a political dialog rarely remains purely political, but instead tends to wander like loose cattle over issues such as race, gender, birthplace, age, and religion that are totally inappropriate in a business setting.
Employees impassioned about a particular candidate or issue also can overstep the bounds of common courtesy by posting political posters and paraphernalia in the workplace, a silent, demoralizing challenge to coworkers who don’t share their political views.
What’s a meeting leader to do? After all, freedom of speech is constitutionally guaranteed, even (and especially) when it may prove inconvenient.
Here are five ways to tactfully defuse a potentially explosive political showdown:
Respect the right to caucus: It’s important as team leader to respect and encourage free expression; otherwise you undermine your own position. Humor can help you remain neutral and positive while still returning to business. “It is a fascinating election cycle, Eugene. If only it could help us plan that lawn party in Singapore next month!”
Be considerate of guests: Any mention of politics in the presence of customers or clients is inappropriate. A simple but forceful “Tammy, we have guests?” should end the discussion.
Encourage engagement: The better your team members know one another, the better they’ll perform on the job. Encourage them to continue their political discussion at break or after hours when disinterested parties won’t be in attendance.
Cultivate civility: You can turn an awkward or unexpected political exchange into a team-building opportunity by treating the political debaters with respect. “Brent and Kevin, you two obviously know a lot about this election. Let’s continue this discussion over coffee later.”
Keep it offline: By encouraging an open, in-person political discussion at the right time and place, you’ll steer the parties away from email and other online forms of communication, where they are less likely to establish the mutual respect and, with luck, rapport you hope will result.
Photo credits: Shutterstock.com