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Polite but assertive intervention can quash political talk in office

“I’m a team leader in a large organization, and one of our team members seems to be overdoing the political cheerleading. He has bumper stickers in his cubicle and takes every opportunity to tell people his political stance on every issue. He doesn’t seem to understand the extent to which people have been alienated by his very public advocacy for his candidate that has lingered long past the election. The others tiptoe around his desk and avoid him as much as possible. He doesn’t report to me, and I’m afraid to say anything to him for fear of crossing a line. How do I tell him to cool it, and how do I tell the other people on the team to suck it up a bit and get over it?”

Animosities are still running high months after the election, so it is no surprise that high-intensity political talk continues to spread to the water cooler and beyond.

Liane Davey, co-founder of a Toronto consulting firm and author of a book, “You First: Inspire Your Team to Grow Up, Get Along and Get Stuff Done,” told the Harvard Business Review that efforts to influence people politically via discussion in the office rarely succeed.  “Politics is very personal, and we tend to hold our beliefs extremely strongly,” she wrote.

Most people spend a huge number of waking hours at work, so it’s natural that politics comes up in talks with co-workers, bosses and team members. Some are thinking about what they read or heard in the media that morning or the night before and others are focusing on one issue. It can be difficult for some conversations to remain civil.

A survey by the American Psychological Association’s Center for Organizational Excellence conducted during the campaign season found that one in four employees was negatively affected by political talk at work. Some 17 percent reported feeling tense or stressed out and another 15 percent said they were more cynical and negative at work as a result of political discussions.

The survey showed that work relationships were affected by the emotion during the campaign as well. Some said team cohesiveness suffered, and more than half of American workers in the survey said they steered clear of political conversations at work. One in five reported avoiding certain co-workers because of their political views.

More workers are spending time on social media related to politics. A survey of 500 full-time employed Americans conducted after the election by BetterWorks, a Redwood City, Calif., software company, showed that workers are spending an average of two hours per day reading political social media posts. Survey respondents reported reading some 14 posts during the workday and some 21 percent of respondents said they read 20 or more posts a day.

When it comes to arguments, the BetterWorks survey found that nearly 50 percent of those surveyed said they had seen a political conversation turn into an argument during the workday, and 30 percent said their colleagues spend more time talking about politics than they do about work. And along gender lines, the APA survey showed that men were more than four times as likely as women (18 percent vs. 4 percent) to report having arguments over politics with co-workers.

So, at a time when emotions are still running high, how do you help your team members draw the line on political talk when it’s gone over the top?

Find a way to end it politely, powerfully and assertively, says Barbara Pachter, a business etiquette and communications coach and co-author of a book, “The Communication Clinic: 99 Proven Cures for the Most Common Business Mistakes.”

“Telling the other people on the team to suck it up—that’s not OK,” she said in an interview. “You can politely tell people that you don’t want to talk about it. If it happens once, it might be OK, but if it’s an ongoing thing, you have the right to speak up.”

So when your team member, “Tom,” brings up the topic again, you would say clearly, “I don’t really want to talk about politics. Please don’t bring up the topic again,’” she says. “Then if it happens again, you would stop the conversation and say quickly: “Remember, Tom, we’re not talking about politics—thank you.’”

“You tell people what behavior you will and will not tolerate,” Pachter says. “You don’t have to scream or yell. If you don’t say anything, the behavior is going to continue. Unless you tell people, they won’t know.”

This approach is part of the “Polite and Powerful/Assertive approach that Pachter and her co-author Denise Cowie promote in their book. “If you are polite and powerful, you exhibit assertive behavior. You take not only your own thoughts, feelings and beliefs into account, but those of others, too. You are polite to people, and you will speak up clearly, calmly and directly. You voice your opinion about things that bother you, and you know how to manage conflict and get problems resolved. You don’t curse or yell. You are fair and upfront with people,” they wrote.

In some cases, people might respond aggressively, rather than respectfully to your request to not talk politics. You can speak up politely and assertively and say, “Tom, I’m uncomfortable discussing this. Let’s get back to work. We’ve got a lot to do” and say it in a way that is firm and respectful,” she says.

If you come across as “polite and powerful,” that can often help calm the situation down, Pachter says.  “Some people don’t realize that they are coming off aggressively.”

Even though this co-worker doesn’t report to you, you can model behavior that will help others on the team, writes David Ballard in Harvard Business Review. “Set clear goals for your team and focus people on working together toward common objectives. When political turmoil is creating tension and distraction, focusing on the work and accomplishing something together may be a welcome reprieve.”

Indeed, the BetterWorks survey found that about 70 percent of workers surveyed said they actually felt more productive since November. “Work has become a positive outlet of good distraction for our team,” one CEO reported.

Managers at Work is a monthly column exploring the issues and challenges facing managers. Contact Kathleen Driscoll with questions or comments by phone at (585)249-9295 or by e-mail at kadriscoll@aol.com.

(c) 2017 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-363-7269 or email madams@bridgetowermedia.com.

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