'Can we even work together?' How to deal with politics in the workplace

By Kevin J. Delaney

The presidency has finally been decided, but this election moment has been intense. And the calls for business leadership on political and social issues likely will only increase  if Washington is as gridlocked as people expect. What should leaders of organizations be doing now? And what’s the best way to approach politics with work colleagues?

For answers, I spoke this week with Heidi Brooks, a senior lecturer in organizational behavior at the Yale School of Management. Her “Interpersonal Dynamics” elective for MBA students is one of the most popular classes at Yale SOM, and her research focuses on “everyday leadership.”

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Below is a transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for clarity:

This has been a wrenching stressful, complicated election time for many people. Should we address that in the workplace, and how would we best do so?

I think we have to address it as at least a contextual factor that's having impact on people. Not the same impact on everyone, but certainly a context in which we are working or trying to work. A lot of people have been asking me about focusing and productivity. So that's the kind of micro picture. How can I actually get anything done when I just really want to just track what's happening with the election? But there's also the larger picture of questions coming up of: Who are we? And what are the rules of engagement? And can we even work together? Those kinds of questions are introducing or revealing and underscoring schisms that are tense for us to negotiate.

And because our skills of negotiating divide and diversity were not very strong to begin with, we're really being tested in this context of chaos and uncertainty at this point. We're not just having an election. We're having an election in the context of Covid and in the context of a lot of questions about the economy and job security. And the context of questions about racial justice including in the workplace. So there's a lot building together. And then we're not really seeing each other in the same way. Some of our usual ways of having lunch together for a little bit of repair and connection are not available. So it's a time where we're having to rely on bigger pictures and shared purpose. And if we didn't have a sense of that before, it's a hard time for workplaces.

If I'm leading an organization and addressing my team this coming week, what would be your advice?

In almost all of my work now, I use the lens and framework of everyday leadership, where I'm really wanting us to pay attention, not to just leadership as ‘capital L ‘positional authority, strategic decisions—but everyday ways that we live together and impact each other. Essentially that's about being human well while we go about our job responsibilities. For managers and leaders that means not just getting things done and focusing on productivity, but also focusing on the process of how we work. So it means tapping into empathy and perspective taking, and perhaps most importantly curiosity about how people are doing. Being willing to ask and interrogate. But it can't just, as a manager and leader, be in a place of interrogation and question and inquiry.

It's also important to acknowledge that you see some of the context that's impacting people, to let people know that you see them. The framing around indicating that you see that the context is having impact on the work, and that it's relevant. You might not be sure how it's relevant, so that's the place for inquiry. It's an important time for everyday leadership to be able to say, ‘Hey, I know a lot is going on. How is everybody doing? Let's talk together about why we work together.’ Keep a sense of people's value and use and role to the shared purpose at the fore. It's hard for people who are really just focused on their corner of the work to put together a systems picture often.

This is a time for the person who does have the systems picture to articulate it, and not necessarily for a place of pressure and extreme accountability. But just because it's hard to keep all of the dots in view for people who share in different perspective and have a different role. So framing from a sense of purpose and from a kind of system role. I was meeting with one of my teams last night, and we had decided some time ago to run a program during this period. And while we have lots of questions about why we were thinking about adding something else to our lives at this time, now that we're in, I feel like one of the things that I can do is to articulate why we do this work and to encourage people to stay connected to that 'why.' Because the tensions and distractions are running high. We haven't seen each other for quite some time.

And people's sense of connection to what their role is and why we're doing it gets a little tenuous. The least that I can do is to start by saying: reminder, here's why we're here and what we're doing, and the purpose of it. And the hope and aspiration, a little bit of reminder of the vision and hope of the work. We need a little hope right now and a little connection to a sense of purpose.

What practices would you suggest for everyday leadership, and leading with empathy?

Empathy is basically about seeing the situation and the way that the other person sees it and then finding merit in their perspective. It's important to express that you understand. You actually have to communicate it, which is a separate step. That skillset in itself is important. I don't think we can assume that we understand the work situation, the way other people see it. So it's worth getting curious and asking, what is this time really like for you? People have children at home or demands that might be impacting the way that they're working. And so really understanding what people's work situation is like might be a place to start. And then the next piece of that is to see if you can align. Is there anything that we can do to make your job easier and help you be successful? That's a kind of good relational conversation. It's probably an important kind of productivity conversation too. What can we do to help you be able to do your job? You can ask that question genuinely and you have some capacity to respond. This might be a nice time to do that.

Should people address political differences openly in the workplace and, if yes, how do you have that conversation?

I'm worried about the word 'should.' 'Should' goes against some decision-making outcomes. What are you trying to accomplish, would be my question. If 'should' is part of the conversation, it suggests either a moralistic overlay that there's a right thing to be doing. Or it suggests simply an outcome to which you're holding yourself and your group accountable, and that you want to be aligned and headed towards that outcome. In the first case of a kind of a moralistic overlay, I think it probably makes sense to check out whether that's coming from your own personal politics and ethics and whether or not those are work appropriate and aligned. If they are, or not, it might be more to keep it out of the workplace. It's really a time for people to think about that because we've got some pretty arduous, committed perspectives happening. We don't agree as a country necessarily about what is right. And we are often taking kind of self-righteous moralistic stances and then advocating for our perspective without necessarily empathy or consideration of the other person's perspective. So the word 'should' worries me.

Putting it another way, what's your advice if you have a different political opinion from a colleague? Would you advise engaging with that?

I think it is possible to engage, but not in the way necessarily you're talking about. Not engaged, like a debate, but engaged by saying, 'Hey, there, there might be a tension between us because we see things differently. And, you know, I want to let you know that I get it that we come down on different of this conversation. I don't need to engage in conversations to try to advocate for my perspective to draw you to my side. And I don't need you to do that with me. But I just want to let you know, I see you and I still work with you. And I want to.’ I think it's worth say that, as you talk about it interpersonally. When you talk about from more of a leadership stats about what do you do with your groups and teams, I do think it's worth saying, 'Hey, let's do what it takes to be able to work effectively together.' Then the question is what does it take in your context to be able to work effectively together? One of the everyday leadership skills and the job of the person who's leading every day is to help people align with sense of shared purpose. Naming and framing that, and keeping that pretty consistently communicated at the fore. Go big picture, go values. Don't just go 'quarterly thing that's due.' That's not resonant enough. We're in a stress test. The DNA of our culture is being revealed at this time.

If you all don't know why you're there together, you'll notice the absence of an answer in this space at this time. But if you do have clarity and there is an organizational context that you can align with and name and communicate, it's a great time to lean into that. Because then you can say, we are here for X reason and at this organization we really strive to do—and you can kind of name the organizational values. Now's the time to really lean into our all-in purpose or our sense of collegiality, or maybe there's something that compels the work from a sense of mission. And we know it's a tough time to find each other, and it's an even more important time to try. It is possible during a stress test to actually build A deeper sense of trust and faith in who you are and why you're working together. So don't miss the opportunity to actually get stronger under duress.

One of the facts of modern workplaces is that there is a lot of seemingly informal and very public communication, with tools like Slack where is a kind of ongoing conversation that people approach differently. Do you think about those tools and how that changes how organizations think about some of the stresses that they're under and how they need to react to them?

I always aspire to use Slack better. We have a kind of project management software that we use, Asana. I'm not sure that we're doing a great job at it. I feel like there's a bit of a learning curve for the whole team. My team certainly prefers to talk or stop off casually at each other's offices. And we don't have some of that latter privilege. It's a big transition into using Slack for project management. We're kind of beside ourselves without it. It's such a hard time to introduce new practices and to get people aligned with new things. But I'm a believer in kind of cool technologies that help us. The question is are they helping us and supporting. Do we actually know how to use them? Are people willing to learn? There's a lot to that. It's well-intended.

There's been a very interesting debate during this election about the extent to which companies should engage in social and political issues. A lot of companies have landed on 'Vote!' But there is Coinbase where the CEO said he didn't believe it was the purpose of companies to engage in social and political issues and offered severance to anyone who disagreed and wanted to leave. And there was Expensify, where the CEO emailed the employees of his customers saying that they needed to vote for Biden. How do you view all of that?

I applaud clarity of stance for organizations, when the offer and the stance are clear, and you can align it in house. Just because the CEO says something does not necessarily mean that's how the culture is immediately working. The CEO is an individual and a very important representation of the organizational culture. But it's helpful to know for employees what's being asked of them, what context they're working in, because I don't see a necessarily clear right or wrong. Organizations are are as diverse as individuals are, right? So they have personalities and organizational cultures.

What's hard is when we don't know what the expectations are and they're more subtle. Some people kind of understand them because they've been there longer or connected to the right people. And other people kind of miss the message. So they're running against the culture but don't know why there are, why there's tension in the same way. That gets people into a more difficult situation. The two organizations that you're giving are more extreme examples. But they're also more clear. Where we get into harder times is when we just have misalignment about, is it okay to talk about politics at work? Is it okay to actually express my opinion? Is that part of our work culture?

Part of what's confusing is when we can't work our way towards what it means to work effectively together. There are many ways to work effectively together, but when we don't know how to recover from from tension, it leaves unresolved tension in the air. That's hard for humans. We're stronger than we think. We actually can recover from tension, but we need to be able to align around what that looks like. Some of what I think really introduces the hardship is a sense of unresolved tension, where it's not clear how people can thrive at work. And whether or not it's okay to take time to vote or to ask about people's political takes. I'm not worried about strong stances. I'm much more worried about creating an environment where people can thrive and align in a way that is clearly a sense of success in any given organizational context.

It looks like there could be gridlock in Washington over the next four years. With more limited prospects for politicians effectively addressing societal issues, will business leaders be even more on the hook for wading into those issues?

It's an indication of how much we are looking for leadership that guides us to manage this time of uncertainty and complexity. Not just this specific time, but this era in being human. Because there's so much growth in our technological capacity. We have not matched it with our ability to navigate the complexity of diversity and access to each other's stories because of the range of the internet. We really need to match our technological sophistication with our interpersonal and group dynamic sophistication, and maybe our political sophistication. So you're seeing that kind of elevation of not only business leaders, but athletes and actors.

That really indicates almost a desperation for leadership that works and for leadership that shows us how to navigate being human at this time together. Workplace leaders, because everyone has workplaces, seem relevant to a broader set. The athletes and the actors and the politicians all have very different jobs. But the business leaders are sort of more similar to most people. They're thinking about workplaces. Workplaces are where adults learn and grow. It's where we spend our time. We're with our colleagues and our peers at work.

If we have any hope and prayer of being able to grow up, to meet the complexity of the world that we have developed technologically, it has to happen through the workplace. We have to learn how to work together more effectively, how to create work processes and ways of communicating with each other and creating norms that help people thrive at work and beyond. We should focus on work because that's the context. But if we can learn how to work together at work, it has all sorts of implications for how we work together in our countries and our playgrounds and our churches. So what we learn at work will extend into where we live, play, and pray.

The pandemic is getting worse and scientists are saying the next few months will be hard. In the context of work, do you have any thoughts for how to navigate the months ahead?

First of all, academic leaders are the ones that were kind of missing at the forefront—so maybe only weirdos like you and me are interested in the academic voice as leadership. So thank goodness for you and the platforms that you've created. Because we've had a little bit of a debate: Are we listening to the scientists or not? Listening to the people who have devoted their lives to knowing in a systematic fashion. It's one of the big questions, how do we kind of authorize knowing and voice. We have a big debate around that with the pandemic. What does it mean to know? Is it enough to feel like you are not susceptible to Covid? Does your sense of safety, or your politics, protect you from Covid? Or is it the case that we really need to pay attention to what the scientists are saying? It's kind of a ridiculous question for those of us who are based in academia or paying attention to the scientists and academics.

But if we can't talk about some of the tensions and recognize that there are reasons that people kind of attend to and authorize different voices, it's going to be hard for us to to make some headway in the pandemic. That said, it's real that we are losing many people in the context of Covid. Because of the way that it's rolled out, not everyone has personal experience with Covid, or losing people. But I live on the coast. We personally have been impacted. My husband was in the hospital and we almost lost him. So for me the context of Covid is very real. We reorganized our entire lives because of the personal impact of the near-death circumstance.

Can we actually face some of the facts of our world in the face of the pandemic, in the face of climate change, in the face of that we actually do not know how to create workplaces that help people thrive as a fundamental aspect of work? These are some realities that we have to come to terms with and respond to with greater wisdom than than we have evidenced. I do turn to business leaders to be able to demonstrate, with the maturity to develop their own personal capacity and the organizational capacity to wrestle with hard questions that may seem in some ways borderline relevant to the everyday tasks of work. But I think are long-term essential for our global wellbeing and for what I consider the hope for humanity.

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