Tragedy, Civility and the Workplace

January 11, 2011

I can’t help thinking that the tragic shooting of public servants and innocent bystanders in Arizona must be turned from so dark a moment to a catalyst for something positive . With pundits and politicians arguing about a madman’s motives and either casting or deflecting blame, let it be sufficient to say that turning our attention to how we speak to one another can’t do any harm.

It has been a constant theme in my work of late to have employees discuss their concerns about political discussions in the workplace. When describing prohibited conduct, including protected class harassment, I am frequently asked about individuals who foist their views on others, who name call those without shared beliefs, or who attempt to rile up those with views different from theirs. I am asked if this is ‘harassment’ and must respond that it is not usually unlawful harassment (unless there are offensive protected-class related comments), but it certainly disrupts the workplace. With great frequency, the follow-on question is whether people should discuss politics at work.

How are we to answer this question? I tend to reflexively turn to the model that places politics in the “values” column, with the conventional wisdom being that discussing values in the workplace is risky — predominantly because if one’s values differ from a coworker’s it might be difficult to reconcile the opposing viewpoints sufficiently to continue to work together with good will. This is why we don’t have casual conversations about, say, abortion, or the existence or non-existence of heaven or hell; too often, an opposing belief creates personal animus that can sabotage effective workplace relationships.
Values, Attitudes, Behavior

Certainly there are legions of advisers who agree that discussing politics at work is divisive. Others note the geometric effect that social media has on creating complexity in workplace debates about politics.. They are right. Discussing politics at work is…well, impolitic, and risky.

I wonder, however, if the evolving workplace might someday provide a tonic to the tone of today’s political discourse. If we think about it, the workplace is uniquely bounded by policy, rule and culture. Good employers expect employees to value diversity and to behave respectfully and civilly in order to ensure high performance. These organizations have been working hard to let people bring their differences to work. In these places, conflict is managed maturely and well. Perhaps it is in those workplaces we will ultimately find the model for the rest of America; the America that understands that alignment of purpose does not mean agreement on strategy, and that different voices make for a great chorus.

It’s a challenge; if you and I work together, respect one another, trust one another and have much in common, perhaps we can resolve to have a discussion about our differences in a civil, respectful manner. Perhaps the workplace provides us a forum to listen to understand rather than to persuade. In other words, if all is going well, we are at our best in the workplace. We are hopefully surrounded by people who we value. Maybe it is at the workplace where we appreciate the contribution someone is making that we can hear views different from our own and recognize that not everyone who disagrees with us has to be one of the vilified “others.”

Is this idealistic? Absolutely, but as a consultant who spends time with organizations at their darkest hours as well as during their brightest days, I find the capacity to listen without judgment, hear diverse perspectives, learn to live with those who see the world differently and embrace conflict as energy to be harnessed leads to organizations that excel in every respect. What a wonderful possibility it is that the workplace could be a model for the larger society, and in turn become even a better place to make a contribution. It is certainly worth considering.


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