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Talking Politics

With the 2008 elections less than a year away, find out what type of discussions are appropriate for the workplace.

"So, who are you supporting in the election?"

It's a seemingly innocuous question--or is it? Discussing politics in the workplace has always been a complex topic, but when it comes to talking about voting preferences and political views, conversations that might start out as intellectual forays can quickly disintegrate into various forms of "us versus them." How do we know what is appropriate to talk about in the workplace?

Of course, what you say, how you say it and to whom are critical variables to consider. But just as important is your position in the company. A national survey conducted in May and June 2007 by Harris Interactive found that nearly one out of four U.S. workers says they are uncomfortable when their top managers openly express their political preferences at work. More than a quarter of those polled said they don't fit in with their company's culture in terms of politics.

These survey results suggest that managers walk a much finer line than other employees when talking about politics at the workplace. "Employees may feel unwanted pressure--whether intended or not--from managers who enthusiastically support a candidate, which can make for an uncomfortable work environment," Harris Interactive said. Reporting relationships have a strong influence on the impact of these conversations.

Power dynamics go both ways. In my consulting practice, I have heard employees convey concern about their future in an organization after expressing their opinions freely and receiving an unfavorable response. They learned the hard way that talking about politics often leads to conversations about different perspectives. In some cases, voicing your political opinions might even be interpreted as a statement of your ethics or how you enact your beliefs. Therefore, it's important to maintain a degree of openness and willingness to hear views that may be contrary to yours.

Generational differences in the workplace also contribute to the complex issue of talking politics at work and whether it becomes controversial. The same survey by Harris Interactive, found that 76 percent of younger employees--age 18 to 34--were comfortable sharing their political views, compared to 64 percent of those age 50 or older. And 84 percent of younger employees said they were comfortable telling their boss which candidates they support versus 68 percent of older workers.

Given this disparity, the question remains: What is the potential impact on the relationship when emotionally laden issues are involved? Consequences can range from people feeling inhibited and holding back when they come to work, to filing a formal complaint, to actually leaving.

So should we all just simply check our politics at the door? Not necessarily. Talking about politics under the right conditions can actually help people see their own views in a different light and give them the opportunity to engage in diverse perspectives beyond their own.

As the highly charged 2008 presidential campaign shifts into high gear, so will discussions of politics at the water cooler. To keep the peace, as employees choose sides and voice views on their candidate, consider the following guidelines:

  • Foster skills for engaging differences. Politics is one topic that arouses strong feelings. But political discussions at work present opportunities to hear different views to which you might not otherwise be exposed, and to expand your perspective through open dialogue, if you believe you can learn from others.
  • Consider the relationship when engaging in political conversations. To what extent does your style of interactions transcend "polite" discourse? What is your experience with each other in terms of debating different points of view?
  • Focus on how you discuss the issues. Think about the way in which you voice your views. Talking about the issues can be stimulating and educational, but remember to respectfully disagree without name-calling.
  • Be sensitive to power and positional dynamics. As an authority figure, consider the impact your point of view might have on others, i.e., how your conversation might be experienced as subtle--or not so subtle--pressure.
  • Take time to reflect. Be willing to consider what the other person is saying and examine your own perspective, rather than just debate the certainty of your views.

Whether it's the presidential election, or local politics, be mindful of how you interact with others, as well as the impact your conversations have on your work relationships. After all, in the workplace, we are all on the same side.

Ilene Wasserman, Ph.D., is Entrepreneur.com's "Office Culture" columnist. As founder and principle of the ICW Consulting Group, she helps foster diversity and inclusion throughout the workplace by enhancing communication and collaboration at all levels.

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