Pay Attention to Poisonous Politics Talk at Work

filed under Accountability, Communication, Current Events, Key Concepts & Conversations, Tips and Tools.

One of the biggest barriers to productivity in the workplace today is the intrusion of the poisonous politics of our times.

People have lost all decorum. They are suspicious and hypersensitive, watching for others to cross some line, whatever that line may be. They are also hyperreactive so that when a perceived line is crossed, they react with anger, accusations and defensiveness instead of questions or curiosity. Workplace incivility has escalated. It is epidemic. The damage is severe.

Though the foundation for this was laid strategically over time, this unprecedented level of politics-related conflict in the workplace comes from the last election cycle and its aftermath.

In early 2017, 29% of employees surveyed said they were less productive after the election, according to performance management company BetterWorks. Forty-nine percent had witnessed a political conversation turn into an argument; among millennials, that figure rose to 63%.

According to an American Psychological Association survey released in May 2017, 26% of workers said they felt stressed by political discussions at work, a nearly 10% increase over a survey conducted only months earlier, before the election.

Subsequent research reports have been sparse, but the trend continues. In March 2018, for example, fully three-fourths of the participants in a nonprofit conference session raised their hands when asked how many had seen or felt increased tensions in the workplace related to the election.

Why Is This Happening?

People in positions of highest authority are normalizing toxic behavior: publicly modeling some of the worst behavior – bigotry, name-calling, dishonesty and threats – on a level not seen in a lifetime. And it’s not just those who actively act out. Leaders who remain silent are complicit. When they don’t call out aggression or lies or threats, they are saying this behavior is okay. They give credibility to perpetrators. Their passivity is almost as problematic as the offenders’ actions.

Media, especially social media, plays a big role as well. Poisonous political rhetoric is repeated countless times in a never-ending echo chamber. Repetition makes bad messages seem valid. And while people receiving these messages may think it’s just “white noise,” in fact their automatic and often unconscious brain processes are absorbing these messages and even accepting them as real. Before you know it, things that aren’t even true seem like things worth fighting for.

Humans also have a natural tendency to “tune” our behavior to match the behavior of people who are important to us. Social tuning, too, is mostly unconscious. So, adults may “tune to” or adopt the behavior of their leaders much in the same way children mimic what they see their parents do, even when the behavior is destructive.

What Can You Do?

Fortunately, there are actions you can take. The most important thing is to pay attention to incivility of any sort. See it. Name it. Deal with it. While it can be tempting to avoid conflict, there is no quicker way to become part of the problem you are trying to solve than to ignore what is going on.


For employees:

  • Tell someone when there is a problem. Tell your supervisor, if that is safe. HR or employee committees may be options. Ask for action and accountability.
  • Document what’s happening. At a minimum, share your story with supportive colleagues, family and friends.
  • Evaluate your role in the situation. Where might you have slipped? Is there anything you can do to defuse matters?
  • When others struggle, be a witness. If it will help de-escalate the situation, let the offender know that their behavior is not okay.
  • Limit your exposure to media, especially social media, at work. This will help reduce tension and the temptation to talk about what you are reading.

For employers:

  • Listen to employees. Take them seriously and follow up with meaningful action, when needed. Beware of false equivalencies.
  • Provide tools to address situations as they arise and guidelines to have effective conversations about the topics that directly affect your workplace.
  • Engage everyone in conversations about how to create an environment that works well for all, rather than establishing “rules” or a “ban” on certain topics. Consider how your existing culture may be feeding the dysfunction.
  • Demonstrate that respect flows from the top down and that mechanisms for accountability are in place. This could include changes in staff and systems.

Politics are not, by nature, poisonous. The outcomes of political decision making, policy and law, govern how companies and communities function. Ultimately, we must reclaim “politics” from the list of dirty words and encourage everyone to respectfully engage in matters that affect our work and lives.

Jody Alyn specializes in inclusion strategies. She works with organizations that want to bridge gaps, solve complex problems and seriously improve results. See In The News for Jody’s media interviews on this topic.


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