Workplace communication: maintaining civility during contentious times

Workplace communication: maintaining civility during contentious times

When heated political discussions escalate, it can set the stage for a hostile work environment. So how can we foster a culture of mutual respect without silencing employees? 

If the tension in your workplace feels a little unbearable, you aren’t alone. 

Escalating racial tensions in the middle of a pandemic during a U.S. election year is hardly what any of us envisioned this year. 

Dissecting and debating current events in the workplace is nothing new, but the polarizing and divisiveness of 2020 is causing emotional outbursts and strong opinions. Now more than ever before, employees are feeling the need (and in some cases, obligation) to make their voice heard on internal social networks and intranets. Even those of us who typically refrain from voicing opinions have found ourselves in the crossfire. 

Many of us already dreaded politically fuelled discussions over family gatherings; and now we get to feel uncomfortable about it in the workplace too. Yet unlike an annual family dinner, we can’t just walk away from our colleagues and wait for things to cool off until next year.  

With words comes visibility, responsibility, and even scrutiny. Often even the best intended communications are becoming misinterpreted and misconstrued. Say the wrong thing, or express or support an unpopular opinion, and the demands for you to be cancelled quickly follow. Adding to the frustration is the nuance we lose when workplace communication occurs via Slack or a webcam. 

When heated political discussions escalate, it can set the stage for a hostile work environment. So how can we foster a culture of mutual respect without silencing employees? 

Be open to different viewpoints

For healthy and productive workplace communication to occur, we must remain open to new information—even if we disagree with it. If we are not open minded, we are defensive. 

Should your opinion be in sharp contrast to a colleague’s, try to understand why they believe what they are doing is the best choice for them. For example, if your colleague is against wearing a mask or engaging in social distancing (to protect themselves from COVID-19), there might be more to the story than them simply acting selfish. They may feel out of control, have a medical condition that precludes mask-wearing, feel fearful of losing their rights, or they may simply struggle with change and are unable to express this. 

It’s also important to remember that information and ideas presented to us online are likely leveraging our confirmation bias. Liberal or conservative, we are all subject to this. 

Have a policy

Escalated political expressions can hurt more than just your employees, it can impact your business. So while it may be tempting to let the ‘kids sort it out’, managers should create clear boundaries relating to political exchanges. The workplace should be a safe space for every employee.

A policy around workplace communication can provide some guidance and clarity over tense conversations.  A policy doesn’t necessarily need to ban political discussions, but it could dissuade heated debates. It’s also worth prohibiting the display of distribution of any and all political materials. 

Find the grey

When arguments escalate, it can be easy to get wrapped up in who is right and who is wrong. This can create division as the person who thinks they are in the right must be better, and those that disagree should be ashamed. The good people in this context aren’t only the ones who agree with you, just like the bad people aren’t necessarily the ones who disagree with you. No one is all good or all bad. 

Many arguments and debates are tainted with contradictions. Conversations and topics can (and usually are) be both positive and negative simultaneously. Similarly, two polarizing viewpoints can be both correct and incorrect. So even if you are right, you may still be wrong in the eyes of someone else. It’s subjective, it’s grey; there’s nuance.

It’s also tempting to assume because you feel strongly about something, your colleagues might too. However, positive relationships are not mutually exclusive with sharing the same opinions. We can support and respect each other even if we disagree. 

Intent matters…sort of

It’s easy to confuse the impact of how we feel with the speaker’s intent. You can feel offended, but that doesn’t mean the speaker was being offensive. And when we assume intent, we are not able to listen objectively. 

As the listener and receiver, it’s important to consider that hurtful messages likely weren’t intended to inflict harm. We can never be aware of another person’s intent or your impact on them. We can assume intent, but we can’t know for sure.  

However, this doesn’t mean we should encourage anyone hurt to simply get over it because the intent wasn’t to upset or offend. We also must be aware that good intention alone isn’t enough. Even someone with the best of intentions can cause great harm if they are inadvertently ignorant or careless. It’s therefore important to create safe spaces for employees to feel heard, and safe to express concerns without being dismissed. This is particularly important in workplaces that could potentially cause marginalized groups to feel unwelcome. 

So yes, intent plays a role, but we still need to ensure we create an environment that protects and addresses anyone who may feel potentially invalidated in the workplace. 

Refrain from knee-jerk assumptions and reactions

Reading statements we strongly disagree with can feel like a punch in the gut—or even worse, a personal attack. We might even have an overwhelming urge to ‘school’ the offender. But rather than reacting in the moment, take the time to ask clarifying questions like, “Can you help me understand this comment/article?” This will help you come across as curious, rather than accusatory or suspicious. 

It’s a fine line, but it can be achieved. And if we can arrive at a place of curiosity, our conversations can be both difficult and constructive. 

Similarly, when you are responding to email, or posting on your intranet, take a moment to review what you are saying. Is there any chance what you are posting can be misinterpreted? Could it potentially offend a coworker? Could it negatively impact a marginalized group? As mentioned above, we aren’t always aware of the consequences of our words. For example, consider a scenario where an employee has used a derogatory term. It may be obvious to you why that term is offensive, but it may not be obvious to others. 

Fair or not, there is increased scrutiny on social media and internal social networks. Most workplace communication channels offer bookmark or reminder options. This can be useful for heated topics because it allows you to come back to read something later, and respond during a more convenient, or clear-headed time. 

Create a psychologically safe environment

As part of their mandate an HR department is responsible for fostering an environment where all employees feel valued, respected, and included. They are also responsible for ensuring a psychologically safe workplace

Psychological safety is a confidence that team members wouldn’t embarrass or threaten individuals for speaking up or asking for help, trying something new, or voicing work-related dissenting views. In teams that are psychologically safe, team members feel comfortable to be themselves and to actively learn on the job.

There is a strong business case for promoting and cultivating psychological safety in the workplace. As Google’s people analytics discovered, psychological safety was the aspect most reliably shared by high performing teams. 

Share some good news

A survey from the American Psychological Association found that even prior to COVID-19, more than half of Americans said that the news causes them stress, and many report anxiety, fatigue, or sleep loss as a result. With major news networks resorting to 24/7 political coverage, it can be a tough topic to escape. Especially since the majority of us are glued to our phones. Turning off the TV is easy. Putting the phone down? Not so much. 

Research (unfortunately) shows that we pay more attention to depressing and negative news, and perceive it to be more important than positive news. The media knows this, but that’s ok; they are a business after all. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t do your part in sharing positive news. 

One study revealed that employees who received good news were 18% more optimistic than the control group of employees who were not given the experimental nudge. Furthermore, the nudge group reported being 32.4% less anxious and 12.2% more likely to feel grateful for being healthy than the employees in the control group, who did not watch the good news videos or take part in the meetings. Set a strong example and take the initiative to share positive news. You could also set up a channel or page devoted to positive news.  

For what it’s worth

“Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong.” ― Stephen Stills

As strange as it seems, disagreements can be a starting point for innovation and creativity. By listening to different perspectives, we can create a culture that fosters collaboration and prospers from it. 

The world may feel tense and polarized at the moment, but we have more in common than we realize. In the case of workplace communication, you have the commonality of working for the same company—so start there. 

Whatever you decide to communicate, always remember that words can have a long lasting impact. Choose yours wisely, and ensure your workplace communication unites your colleagues and organization. Not divide it. 

If we are going to survive this time, we need to be united. 

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September 29, 2020

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