Results of a recent survey by the American Psychological Association (APA) suggest this presidential election is negatively impacting employee productivity. According to the “Politics in the Workplace: 2016 Election Season" survey (http://tinyurl.com/z6nwd4b), 1 in 4 U.S. employees is negatively affected by political talk at work this election season, and more than twice as many men as women reported that political talk is making them less productive. The "Politics in the Workplace: 2016 Election Season" survey was conducted online on APA's behalf by Harris Poll from Aug. 10-12, 2016.
What explains these findings?
Well, for many people, discussing politics in the workplace can be a highly stressful experience. During this highly contentious and polarizing election season, the stress of political talk at work is likely to be even more magnified. The problem with discussing politics at work is that we run the risk of getting into political disagreements with others who we typically spend a great deal of time, our coworkers. Given the world of work is growing increasingly more collaborative and team-based, perceived political differences may factor more into daily interactions with coworkers and present an additional challenge to team cohesion during heated and emotionally-charged political seasons.
For some people, political discussions are welcomed and not taken personally. They are viewed as intellectually stimulating, a chance to “debate the issues”, and even an opportunity to learn how others may view a particular issue through a different lens than their own. For other people, however, political talk may be interpreted as a fundamental threat to their core identities and the values they stand for. That is, political discussions may be perceived and defined as a personal “attack” that needs to be defended against in order to protect one’s sense of self.
As such, for some employees, perceived political differences during a campaign season may become a persistent source of stress and distraction that detracts from their ability to devote maximum attention and effort to their work. In team meetings, rather than feeling safe to freely discuss their political opinions and authentically express their beliefs, individuals may worry about potential interpersonal conflict and others rejecting their views. In turn, they may engage in heightened self-monitoring and “surface acting”, an exhausting psychological process that research has consistently shown depletes valuable mental energy needed for effective execution of daily work tasks.
With respect to the current campaign season, there are a number of complex issues at play that make it unique and especially emotionally charged. Part of the reason why this campaign, in particular, may be exerting negative effects on employee wellbeing and productivity is because: a) it involves two political candidates who are both highly polarizing with respect to their opposing constituencies; b) it seems to be much more "in our faces" than prior elections; and, perhaps most centrally, c) it has tapped into many deep-rooted social issues in our society and opened up “old wounds”, including issues surrounding race, gender, poverty, and immigration, among others.
So, the question then becomes: Is there a role that HR should play in addressing political talk in the workplace? If so, how should that role be defined?
For example, should we be training managers on strategies to diffuse political conflict in work teams or educating employees on how to have a civil discourse surrounding politics without such discussions turning into interpersonal conflict?
Comment with your thoughts below! How would you want this handled in your workplace?
Christian Thoroughgood, PhD is an Assistant Professor in the Graduate HRD program at Villanova University. Learn more about him here!