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Navigating political differences at work: Building trust and understanding

In today’s bustling workplaces, where individuals from diverse backgrounds converge to achieve common goals, an unexpected guest often makes its presence felt: political polarization. Have you ever felt a heated discussion about politics taking over your lunch break, or noticed a chilly vibe between colleagues with opposing political views? The political polarization that we often see on TV screens and social media has managed to sneak its way into our workplaces too, potentially affecting collaboration and trust.

But recent research has unveiled insightful strategies to address this challenge and foster a more harmonious and cohesive work environment. Medha Satish Kumar, a postdoctoral fellow at SFU Beedie and research associate with the GLOBE Project, and her co-authors, Dr. Mansour Javidan, Dr. Rick Cotton, Dr. Anirban Kar and Dr. Peter Dorfman, have recently published research in Business Horizons on the new leadership challenge of navigating political polarization in organizational teams.

The influence of party affiliation

Consider this scenario: you're collaborating on a project with a colleague whose political party differs from yours. This affiliation can subtly influence how they view and engage with you. Research has revealed that individuals tied to specific political parties tend to harbour biases against those aligned with opposing parties. These biases can inadvertently impact work interactions and relationships, highlighting the need for a nuanced approach to bridge these divides.

The COVID-19 pandemic, a global crisis that brought the world together in unprecedented ways, might have been expected to alleviate political differences. Yet, contrary to expectations, these differences persisted and may have even intensified. Shared challenges did not automatically translate into increased trust and understanding among individuals with differing political viewpoints.

Empathy is an increasingly important element to establishing trust among managers and professionals with divergent political views. Imagine a scenario where your supervisor truly comprehends your perspective, even if your political stances diverge. Empathy acts as a catalyst for trust-building, allowing for a deeper connection and fostering understanding between colleagues with opposing political beliefs.

Strategies for navigating political differences

How can organizations navigate these challenges and foster a culture of unity? Kumar and her fellow researchers coined what they call the ART of dealing with political polarization: acknowledge, respect, and trust.

First, leaders must prepare themselves before engaging in any of the following strategies by understanding the broader context of the polarization within their team. Political polarization in the workplace is affected by important events and developments in society and leaders need to stay abreast of current events from different sources to be aware of the discourse that may inflame political polarization.

From there, leaders can engage in the following strategies.

1. Acknowledge

Imagine a workplace where accomplishments are publicly recognized and celebrated. Acknowledging the contributions of individuals not only boosts morale but also reinforces a sense of collective purpose, transcending political differences and aligning the team towards shared objectives.

The key to effective acknowledgement is to focus on people’s identities and contributions and take advantage of opportunities to publicly reinforce the specifics of your organization’s mission and values to reinforce overarching goals. Leaders should articulate and reinforce the key accomplishments and contributions of each team member to the organization’s and the team’s success. Reminding everyone of the criteria for success helps keep members focused on what unites them in the first place and can help keep political polarization in check.

2. Respect

Recall a time when your perspective was genuinely heard, even if it differed from that of others. This type of active listening creates an environment where diverse viewpoints are valued and respected. By promoting open and respectful dialogue, teams can create spaces for meaningful discussions that bridge divides. Build rapport by identifying and communicating commonalities between parties and engage in personal, one-on-one dialogue to allow your team members to share their views and dispel misperceptions.

3. Trust

To build sustainable trust, you need to build a strong team culture that sustains and nurtures trust. Leaders play a pivotal role in nurturing this culture by acting as a role model to set an example, always demonstrating trust, empathy, and curiosity, as well as a willingness to learn from others.

Dialogue is key in fostering the kind of trusting environment where teammates feel free to speak up and share their perspectives. And remember, while “getting to yes” and achieving full agreement may be idea, sometimes “living with no” and appreciating disagreement is necessary and helps to further build trust by allowing the other party feel seen.

Transforming differences into strengths

The presence of political polarization in the workplace is not an insurmountable challenge. Much like any complex issue, it requires deliberate and thoughtful action. Differences in political ideology at work need greater attention, investment and focus wherever they exist. And team leaders who pretend such polarization does not exist do so at their own peril.

By acknowledging strengths, engaging in respectful conversations, and fostering a culture of trust, organizations can transform political differences into opportunities for growth and innovation.