Keep Politics from Eroding Your Workplace Culture

December 12, 2019

Keep Politics from Eroding Your Workplace Culture

A recent surevy said that over a third of working Americans say their workplace is not inclusive of differing political perspectives.

Emotionally uncomfortable employees are less engaged, flexible, and productive. With the next presidential election still 12 months out—and the political views in this country becoming more and more polarized—you can’t afford to do nothing about the politicized conversations that may be unfolding, spreading discomfort, and diminishing performance throughout your company. 

Here are concrete steps you can take to both safeguard your culture against corrosive political conversations and also ensure that your working environment remains purposeful, positive, and productive.

1. Acknowledge that rules of engagement are sorely needed.

Do you wish that your employees simply wouldn’t discuss politics at work, at all? That’s an understandable mindset, but it’s unrealistic. 

In today’s highly charged national conversation, many previously “safe” topics of conversation have become politicized. Political viewpoints (and even worse, assumed political viewpoints) can easily creep into conversations that have nothing to do with politics. Global supply chains, local sourcing options, employee benefits and even advertising platforms can trigger conversations that gradually spiral into prickly, politicized territory. The solution?

Be realistic. Don’t bury your head in the sand and pretend that national politics aren’t finding their way into your conference rooms, break rooms or production lines. Acknowledge the intense emotions that can emerge when otherwise amicable colleagues’ deeply held beliefs come into conflict. Take steps to establish the rules of engagement for discussing politics in your workplace through creating a foundation for respectful discourse. 

The fastest, most effective way to do this is to craft an organizational constitution built upon the powerful, team-building core values that your employees’ do share.

2. Identify the shared values and valued behaviors upon which everyone can agree.

An organizational constitution is an inclusive, energizing, “we the people” approach to building “a more perfect company.” It’s an organizational development tool that works for two reasons. First, because it honors and leverages the lived experiences of every employee in your company, and second, because it harnesses the core driver of all human behavior—values

Values are peoples’ fundamental beliefs about what’s most important in life. We all operate according to our own unique values systems: rank-ordered sets of priorities that inform all of our thoughts, decisions and actions. In any given workplace around the world, you’ll find a group of employees with varying (even conflicting) values systems. Yet, you’ll also find a handful of values—core values—upon which every employee, from the front line to the C-suite, can agree.

Most often, these shared, core values include important ideas about respect, collaboration, compassion, corporate governance, performance, trust, fairness or diversity, though other topics can and do surface during the formal, iterative discovery process in which every employee’s feedback is sought and integrated. 

Through investing the time to establish your company’s unique set of shared values (and the key behaviors that bring those values to life on a daily basis), you tap into the most powerful driver of positive, respectful behavior. In our country’s high-tension, polarized environment, your employees are craving a rallying point; a standard and framework through which they can relate to one another joyfully and feel a part of something worthy, safe and civil. 

Give them these gifts.

3. Link shared values to your mission, vision, purpose, strategies and goals.

You’ve heard the political term, “wag the dog.” In fact, you’ve seen many politicians do it, when they’re asked a question they’d rather not answer, diverting attention away from a big mistake toward a smaller issue where they can claim victory. Too often, political discussions in the workplace that start off civilly eventually devolve into wag-the-dog one-upmanship. The result is frustration, hurt feelings and later, embarrassment on both sides.

You can prevent these kinds of race-to-the-bottom conversations by taking the next step in developing your organizational constitution. In this second phase, you link your shared values and valued behaviors to your company’s mission, vision, purpose, strategies and goals. When you create this linkage, your shared values become super-charged. How the work gets done gets connected to what your employees are working toward together, and—most importantly—why you are making the world a better place.

Wagging the dog becomes a much less attractive option for every employee when you put a clear, compelling desired future (and a detailed roadmap for how to get there) on the table. This is exactly what an organizational constitution does for you.

4. Further develop your respectful, values-aligned workplace culture.

Once you’ve finalized your organizational constitution and had it publicly signed by every employee, your next step is to engage your senior leaders in modeling the values and valued behaviors that you’d like to see from the rest of your employees. Forging this adherence may take executive coaching or workshops. It will take including values-driven leadership in each executive’s performance dashboard. 

You can’t expect to hold the rest of your employees to a higher standard than those at the top. 

Once key leaders are visibly and consistently modeling respectful communication in every interaction, you can begin measuring and monitoring the values-aligned (or values misaligned behaviors) of the rest of your employees. To be honest, holding everyone accountable to your organizational constitution requires a significant investment of time, energy and focus. 

Yet, wouldn't you rather commit these assets to building a purposeful, positive productive workplace culture than to cleaning up damaged relationships and teams from the fallout of disrespectful political discussions?

The good news is, you don’t have to launch a major culture refinement initiative to begin to see positive results. You and your immediate team in HR can easily take small steps to get the ball rolling and set a new standard for respectful communication in your workplace.

The Authors: 

S. Chris Edmonds is author of The Culture Engine, co-author of Leading at a Higher Level, and Founder and CEO of the Purposeful Culture Group.