Divisive Politics In The Workplace

What Should A Leader Do To Keep Political Friction Off The Job?

By Steve Schumacher

You would have to be in a cave 24/7 to not notice the dramatic political divisions in our country currently. It is major fodder for all of the media outlets, radio stations, newspapers and electronic media. 

Since our country began, there have been differences of opinion between political parties. In fact, differing opinions is one of the reasons our country is so great. It just seems that the differences are completely polarized now, with no one seeming to be able to bring the opposing sides together. As we have seen, some of those differences have turned volatile. 

Most of us, if not all, would agree that polarization and volatility have no place on the job. To be most effective, companies must have outstanding teamwork, collaboration, compromise and the ability to understand opposing positions. Even if those things are not prevalent in broader society, companies need those things to stay competitive in this fluid environment.

So, what is a leader to do to be proactive in keeping divisive politics out of the workplace, so all employees’ energy can focus on the tasks at hand and improve every day? 

First, people are people and they have opinions. The chances of you changing those opinions significantly is pretty close to zero. The opinions we are talking about in this article are very deeply entrenched. Not only are your probably not able to change employees’ minds about their beliefs, it is probably not your job, as a leader, to do that. Your job, in regards to divisive opinions, is to develop, communicate, and follow-through on, consequences of employees allowing their opinions to influence the work environment negatively.

With that in mind, here are some things to consider to keep the volatility from impacting teamwork and productivity in your organization:

Do not wait. When it becomes clear that you want, and need, a plan of action when volatility comes into the workplace, act quickly. Some employees will perceive the lack of action as abdication of the problem. That perception will send the message that letting political opinions influence the job is okay, when it is not okay. That plan should include the specific behaviors that you consider actionable, what the consequences of those behaviors will be, and a suggestion for how employees should behave.

Involve employees. Believe me, the vast majority of your employees are there to do a job and do it well, with minimal interruptions. Unfortunately, there will be a small percentage of very vocal employees who want to stir the pot. Identify some employees who are willing to work with you on developing a plan to eliminate outside influences, or at least keep them to a minimum. Choose employees who are supportive of the company and leadership. Involvement of employees makes it easier to enforce the policy because they will have ownership of it. 

Develop the plan. Give the group time and a space to work together on the formulation of a plan that includes the policy and consequences for violations. In my experience, employees are much tougher than managers are when it comes to developing consequences. In addition to the policy, get employee input on how to enforce the plan. You do not want a plan that is unfair or creates vigilantes in the workforce. What you are seeking is a policy and a plan that is logical, fair, easy to enforce, and is clearly understood by everyone.

Communicate the plan. Just like any other part of your organization, clear communication is key. When it comes to educating all employees about a policy that could have negative consequences for some, clarity is vital. Make sure you include an HR representative all along the way, so all legal aspects are considered. If possible, hold employee meetings to explain the new policy and respond to questions. Just posting it on a bulletin board, real or virtual, diminishes the importance of it.

Be the model. We have all seen examples of leadership putting together a policy and then not living up to it themselves. Do not be that kind of leader. If you do, the policy is weakened and your leadership takes a hit at the same time. The same goes for your leadership team. Make sure they understand clearly that the policy is for all employees, them included.

Policy needs enforcement teeth. If you do not follow-through and enforce the new policy, you have wasted your time and effort. Everyone will be watching what happens if there is a violation.

As a leader, you must work hard to keep everyone focused at work. Letting political divisions bleed into the workplace will negatively affect your entire operation. Being proactive will keep your workplace productive and collaborative. 

Steve Schumacher is a management consultant, trainer and public speaker with more than 25 years of experience in numerous industries throughout North America, including aggregates operations. He can be reached at [email protected]

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