The political and ideological divisions in our society have grown during these turbulent times. These include well-established political opinions, growing conspiracy theories, and economic chaos, and the fear, uncertainty, and suffering created by the pandemic have aligned to drive new or larger wedges between family, friends, neighbors, and coworkers.
Organizations are not immune to this conundrum, and many are grappling with how to keep the peace among ideological adversaries who, by virtue of their workplace roles, must collaborate. Even among remote workforces, tensions can percolate during telephonic and digital exchanges. Also, off-duty social media posts that are incendiary sometimes come into play, as well. Of course, when employees are in actual physical proximity, this emotional strain may increase. Posture, gestures, and facial expressions communicate as much as or more than spoken or typed words.
A New Imperative
Like many families and communities, organizations are increasingly taxed with a new imperative. The kinds of divisions we are suffering, if left to their own devices, can wreak interpersonal and cultural havoc on a work team or an entire entity. The collective emotional intelligence of the workforce is challenged. Toxic interactions, whether aggressive or passive aggressive, undermine employee well-being, productivity, retention, and the bottom line.
It is easiest to deal with these scenarios when the divisions are out in the open. If you have two individuals or cliques that make no pretense about their disdain for each other’s opinions or mere presence, nobody has to point to the elephant in the room—it’s in plain sight for all to see. This saves a step. Rarely is there any dispute about the reality of a toxic workplace, even when individuals disagree about its causes. The collective recognition of the problem may be the only point upon which the warring parties can initially agree, but, when present, it provides a useful foundation for further efforts.
More vexing is when the combatants go underground. Sometimes the passive aggression emerges in pleasantries to one’s face, followed by poison in your mental tea. We know these folks as backstabbers, peddlers of nefarious gossip and innuendo, and foot-draggers. Unlike the aforementioned coworkers who are openly cold or hostile to each other, the feigned pleasantries of those exhibiting passive aggression present another obstacle. The absence of conflict resolution skills motivates many employees to go underground with their disputes rather than address them directly.
Finding Common Ground
There are several methods for lowering our psychological weapons, finding common ground, and engaging in genuine discussions rather than interpersonal food fights. When it comes to ideological exchanges, there are no panaceas, just best efforts. Nonetheless, it’s prudent that leaders and managers educate and, if possible, train their employees on a communication method that provides the best chance for peacemaking. This step-by-step approach is as follows:
- Listen: This may be the toughest step, but it’s vitally important. Center your body and breathe deeply (helps us remain calm) while the other person states his or her viewpoint. Don’t interrupt, and don’t interject your opinion (yet). This shows respect, which is critical for civil discourse.
- Ask questions: Rather than responding right away with your perspective or pushback against the other person’s, ask open-ended questions in a nonaccusatory tone. Some common examples include: “Why do you feel that way?” and “How did you come to that conclusion?” and “What is the source of your information?” This displays interest rather than opposition, and often, it unbalances folks expecting a volley of verbal mortars.
- Restate what you heard: By restating your grasp of the other person’s view and asking him or her to confirm or clarify what you gleaned, you build an interpersonal bridge. Even when opinions don’t align, shared understanding provides a way to respectfully connect.
- Say what you learned: If the other person disclosed an idea you hadn’t previously considered, say so. For example: “You know that point you made about X? Well, I never thought of it that way.” This demonstrates your openness to alternative ideas, narrowing the ideological chasm and modeling receptivity to other opinions.
- Share your viewpoint: Respectfully highlight where your perspectives diverge. State how you came to your opinion. This shows confidence, meaning you’re willing to consider competing ideas, but you’re not a pushover. When expressing your view, use more “I” statements than “you” ones. The latter can create a feeling of finger-pointing.
- Model doubt: If you want your adversary to question his or her beliefs, then question some aspect of your own. For example: “I’ve wondered if X might be exaggerated, so I’ll look for more information.” By softening or qualifying your position, you encourage the other person to do the same.
- Don’t debate: If your adversary vehemently attacks your viewpoint, listen but don’t debate. If necessary, make a summary statement, such as “The best we can do is agree to disagree.” The objective here is not to win an argument but rather to sow seeds of curiosity or openness in your counterpart. If you succumb to a heated debate, that bridge you’ve been building will explode.
- Close respectfully: Thank the other person for the discussion, and make a closing statement, like “Although we don’t agree, I appreciate the opportunity to share our viewpoints.” Take the high road. Your counterpart may not like your opinions, but he or she will probably respect you, setting the stage for more discussing and less proselytizing in the future.
It’s been said that those who make reasoned discussions impossible make emotional escalation and discord inevitable. Don’t be among them. And, if possible, provide your employees with training on these communication tools. Not only will this help lower the divisive temperature over political or social disputes, but it will also provide tools for handling disagreements in general.
Connecting to Culture
As for the workplace culture at large, some employers provide discussion groups with a trained facilitator from their employee assistance program (EAP). This provides a forum for talking about the stressors workers are experiencing, how these impact morale and well-being, and ways to collaborate on improving the workplace atmosphere. These are not therapy groups or forums for airing grievances but rather opportunities to find common ground in the face of shared challenges. Under no circumstances should employees be compelled to attend such a group. Granted, at least at first, many who should attend will not. However, if the discussions prove worthwhile, word will get around.
Another initiative that helps heal a wounded or toxic culture is galvanizing employees around a common cause. Regardless of their differences, most folks can agree on ways to give back to the community in support of those in need. Encouraging and supporting employee efforts to organize around doing good instills a sense of comradery and increases positivity in the workplace culture. Research shows we feel better when we give to others in need, both individually and collectively.
Obviously, leaders and managers need to model these approaches. Simply insisting that employees avoid talking about their differences only drives disputes underground, where they are tougher to address. When leaders acknowledge the issues driving folks apart, offer ways to address them, and participate in doing so, a path to collective healing opens up.
It helps to recognize that divisiveness and interpersonal toxicity arise not just from ideological differences but also from the backdrop of pandemic-induced disruptions, angst, and suffering that have gripped our nation for well over a year now. When we find ways to join hands, or at least lower our psychological shields, these wounds begin to heal.
Philip Chard served as President and CEO of Empathia, Inc., for over 30 years and continues to serve client organizations as a consultant. Empathia has been helping organizations and individuals be their best for over 35 years. The company began in 1982 as an internal EAP for a regional medical center and now provides highly customized and successful behavioral health, student support, and crisis management programs to companies across the globe. For more information, visit www.empathia.com.