Commentary

Here’s how to combat politically charged office watercooler chat | Opinion

November 29, 2020 7:55 am

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By Kimberlee Josephson

The finalization of election results will likely do little to diffuse hot button issues and the posting of political and personal sentiments will continue to hamper workplace connections.

Instead of being judged by the content of our character, co-workers are being judged by the content of their posts.

Workplace tensions are rising as algorithms feed into skewed world views rather than challenging them, and as we feel pressured to virtue signal or vent concerns while at the same time scrutinize the emotionally or politically charged posts of our peers.

According to a Pew Research Center survey, seven-in-ten find social media political discourse to be “stressful and frustrating.”

Nevertheless, political views will be shared and speculated and given that remote and hybrid offices may alienate members and reinforce existing biases, managers must work harder to create a cohesive corporate culture. All too easily we fall into an “us vs. them” mentality. So, as the race to the ballot box heats up, here are strategies to ensure your organization serves as an “in-group” for members.

Focus on productivity

Idle hands lead to temptations for scrolling and trolling, whereas active and engaged employees are likely to feel more accomplished and fulfilled.

Now this doesn’t mean institute busy work but rather encourage lulls to be utilized for collaborative projects or incentivize employees to take part in mindfulness programming or other forms of self-care. Establish after hours opportunities for socializing and connecting with colleagues, like virtual happy hours or an online book club. Dedicate resources to these ends and offer rewards and support for such pursuits.

Change the posting culture

Social media platforms serve like a toxic soapbox rather than a communal network, but managers can set the tone by stating their commitment to abstain from politically charged posts and encouraging others to follow suit. If there is something worth sharing, share it personally not publicly, privatize your posts from colleagues and unfollow distracting feeds.

Managers shouldn’t downplay employee expression but encourage being vocal at the polls rather than on shared platforms (managers can further reinforce their support for political participation by providing paid time off on election day, which undoubtedly will be appreciated by all).

When necessary, implement new policies

Changing office norms is a slow process, so instituting policies may be necessary, and expectations may need to be explicit.

However, note that changes in the status quo rarely go smoothly and the size and visibility of your organization may impact your ability to safeguard such changes from external scrutiny.

Although an organization’s owner can direct it as they see fit, the forbidding office banter or the policing of personal posts does little to improve relations (let alone infringes upon individual rights), so developing a social media policy can be a slippery slope.

Organizations shouldn’t overstep their authority nor patronize employees, but managers could allow for distributive decision-making when instituting new expectations and have employees consider how they would handle divisive online discussions and mitigate intrusive interactions.

Focus on people

Catching rising tension amongst colleagues is difficult in the remote work environment. Although management studies have evolved to focus more on managing people, not just operations, the adoption of PeopleOps approaches are in the introductory phase and balancing the autonomy of workers virtually is no simple matter. According to a survey by the Society for Human Resource Management, there’s a skills gap in employees’ ability to engage in problem solving, dealing with ambiguity, and communicating effectively.

As such, companies may put the cart before the horse when instituting training programs prompted by well-intentioned, but not always well-received, social concerns.

Information could be easily misconstrued and just like all church attendees don’t become converts, not everyone partaking in training sees the light. Political beliefs and social values run deep, and online activity can agitate and create false narratives. So, before enacting new programming and initiatives, first develop employees’ soft (people) skills and encourage collaborative projects that result in respectful relationships before moving on to higher order matters.

Overall, managers should strengthen the socialization process and leverage core corporate values to bind co-workers to a common cause (which, hopefully, is the success of the organization). Communityship strategies can build rapport and promote social cohesion, and as relationships develop so too should a shared understanding that communication should be respectful and constructive rather than emotionally charged.

With pandemics, protests, and politicians providing plenty to discuss and debate, workplace conflicts are inevitable. To combat the potential for politics to result in dysfunctional teams and a distorted view of the organization, managers must take steps to keep the peace and minimize hostility – even when employees are working remotely.

Kimberlee Josephson is the associate dean of the Breen Center for Graduate Success and an assistant professor of business administration at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pa.

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