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Politics: Healthy for Democracy, Dangerous at Work

4.04.2016
Most of us have heard the old adage, never discuss religion or politics in polite company. This pertinent advice is also helpful in guiding conversation with the people whom we spend much of our time, our colleagues. 

In the middle of mud-slinging season, otherwise known as a presidential election year, it is tough to separate ourselves from the constant bombardment of political messaging. It saturates our daily life to the point that it often becomes easy to continue kitchen table conversations around the water cooler. While our civic duty compels us to be active participants in the democratic process, we also have a duty to maintain a peaceful working environment for our employees. Here are just a few reasons to keep your political opinions to yourself.

Political Beliefs are a Personal Matter  

Political scientists have analyzed what shapes a person’s political identity. Several factors, including family, socio-economic status, gender, and race all influence voting patterns. Since these are all things that cannot be discussed in an interview, why would they suddenly be acceptable break-room conversation?  It is important to remember that these are the attributes that make someone the person they are. Whether or not it is our intention, insulting someone’s political beliefs is to insult the person themselves. 

Disagreements can escalate quickly
In our current partisan climate, political debate can inspire a level of incivility in the office. It can be argued that Americans are more polarized today than at any point in our history. Anyone brave enough to watch the presidential debates this year can observe the infighting among members of the same political party, attacking each other’s character and motivations.  It is just as easy for friendly debates among co-workers to quickly dissolve into cheap attacks, breeding a toxic atmosphere of resentment. It is important to maintain a positive working environment which encourages healthy relationships among colleagues.  A Boston Consulting Group survey on employee retention revealed that “Good relationships with colleagues” was one of the most important workplace qualities for American workers. 

Political debate at the office is unproductive

Unless you are employed as a campaign worker, political debate is unproductive.  There are already plenty of time-wasters plaguing the office; an impromptu debate over who has the best cures for what ails society is one of them. It is up to managers to set an example of what proper office conduct and decorum is, and internecine political discussions are not what should be demonstrated as effective job performance. Further, political debate rarely ends when two disagreeing employees discontinue their conversation. If we become frustrated after a lively political debate, we often carry that frustration throughout the day; this occupies important brain space that could otherwise be utilized toward achieving business goals.

Arguing about politics rarely changes anyone’s mind

Think about it. When was the last time you can recall ending a heated political discussion with one party admitting they were wrong, and they now shared your viewpoint? I feel confident in wagering that it hasn’t happened. To harken back to an earlier point, political beliefs are part of a person’s identity. Therefore, the most impassioned arguments you make are the ones that make the most sense to yourself, and are completely irrelevant to your debate opponent. It all comes down to a feeling of self-worth, according to social psychologist Eric Horowitz. “Because political beliefs are connected to deeply held values, information about politics can be very threatening to your self-image…If you’re wrong about such an important policy, what else might you be wrong about?”  People don’t want to admit they are wrong. That’s just human nature.       

So what can we do about it? Do we have to be apolitical? Maybe. But only from 8-5 Monday through Friday. The key is maintaining an appropriate balance between our civic and professional duties, and an awareness of the proper arenas in which they occur. 

Susan Mulligan of the Society for Human Research Management points out that our work and home lives are becoming increasingly intertwined, especially when we answer work emails at home and share information on social media while at work. So while employers cannot legally prohibit political discussions from occurring in the office, they do “have a responsibility to make sure workers feel comfortable at work.” Employers are within their legal rights to take employees aside and tell them to keep their political debates to a minimum, especially if it is interfering with their job performance. As managers, the best way we can reinforce positive behavior is to demonstrate it ourselves; leave your politics at home.
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