We’ve all heard the advice – avoid money, religion, and politics in polite conversations. However, today it’s nearly impossible to stay away from politics, thanks to a 24-hour news cycle and information overload via social media. With midterm elections in the rearview mirror, we can anticipate two years of intense scrutiny on the 2020 presidential election. Cue the campaign attack ads!
The workplace is not exempt from political conversations. According to a Harvard Business Review article, political talk is alive and well in corporate America. So much so that one in four employees was negatively affected by political talk at work, and as a result, working Americans felt tense or stressed out (17%), were more cynical and negative at work (15%), had more difficulty getting work done (10%), were less productive (13%) and were producing lower-quality work (10%).
This begs the question: is it possible to engage in political conversations at work to demonstrate civic engagement without damaging professional relationships? I set out to find the answer, interviewing several West Monroe colleagues to find out how they deal with political talk with both colleagues and clients. Through various conversations, I learned the following:
Focus on the business impact, not political decision-making.
West Monroe primarily serves organizations in the financial services, healthcare, and energy and utilities industries—so government regulations and policies have a direct impact on the work we do. That means political opinions should come up often on these matters, right? Not necessarily. Several West Monroe leaders told me they frequently hold conversations on the business impact of such policy decisions—not whether the decision should be made in the first place.
For example, Managing Directors Brian Paulen and Mazen Ghalayini both pointed out to me that trade wars impact the buying environment for our manufacturing and distribution clients. And Chief Strategy Officer Tom Bolger said that with a 3.5% U.S. unemployment rate, hiring is the single biggest constraint to West Monroe’s growth, which is directly influenced by immigration, specifically for technical talent. The point is, they keep the focus of their conversations on a business lens and not who’s right and who’s wrong.
Define the context of the relationship before bringing up politics.
At West Monroe, it often feels like we are working with friends more so than colleagues. However, as a professional, you have to decide the true context of the relationship before diving in to any difficult conversation, politics included. Drawing that line is essential to understanding whether you want to “talk politics” in that moment. Are you talking as friends? Or as colleagues?
According to Senior Talent Acquisition Specialist Alyssa Fennell, in the right time and place, having a mature dialogue about complex topics has the potential to strengthen relationships, which ultimately contributes to a positive working environment. However, it’s also important to remember that you should never feel pressured to offer up your opinions if you don’t feel comfortable, which was a shared piece of advice from Director Colleen Campbell, Senior Consultant Kaila McDonnell, and Consultant Madi Purrenhage.
Seek first to understand—and sometimes that is all you can do.
The opinions we have as individuals are uniquely curated by our experiences. When politics are inserted into conversations, it can sometimes feel like people are attacking not only your opinions but also your truth. However, as Tom Bolger reminded me, when a controversial or polarizing topic comes up, the default shouldn’t always be to insert your own opinion or be offended by someone else’s standpoint. It should be to sit back, listen, and try to understand where the other person is coming from. This will only help to educate you and improve your ability to frame up both sides of any issue.
There’s a way to provide some structure around these conversations, too, to create understanding. For example, West Monroe recently started hosting an internal conversation series called “Let’s Talk Inclusion & Diversity” to help foster a culture of trust, which provides a safe, judgment-free space for guided discussion on hot-button issues like allyship and unconscious bias. Seeking to understand is a strong part of West Monroe’s culture, as the approach provides a foundation for productive business conversations. Using it in the context of political conversations brings the same benefit.
The answer I found: It is absolutely possible to have civil, productive dialogue about politics in the workplace. The key is self-awareness, sensing one another’s limits, and maintaining respect at all times.
When I originally set out to write this blog post, I intended to discover new rules of engagement for the workplace, because I had assumed that the current political climate was unlike anything we’ve experienced before. However, I ended up with more perspective than a set of rules to live by.
There have been many contentious times throughout our country’s history, and there will continue to be more. At the end of the day, it’s your prerogative whether or not you decide to engage in political conversations. My own personal takeaway from conversations with colleagues is that while it may be comfortable to do as the politicians do and pivot, avoiding difficult conversations altogether only inhibits us from becoming educated and understanding other points of view. So if you do decide to engage, I hope these tips serve as a point of reference for how you can do so respectfully.