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How political should I let my team be?

There’s been much talk about the degree to which political conversation in the workplace should happen. As a manager, here are a few things to consider.

Political conversation in the workplace

There’s been much talk about the degree to which political conversation in the workplace should happen.

Most recently, opinions have been spurred by Basecamp’s announcement of their new company policies – the most controversial of which they are asking employees to not engage in political discussions at work. 

(Full disclosure, we, as Know Your Team, are a spin-off of Basecamp back in 2014, and Basecamp holds minority ownership in KYT to this day.)

The instinct to want to shut down political conversation is, admittedly, natural. Discussing politics is exhausting – irrespective of if it’s at work, at home, over dinner, via the phone. Personally, I can barely handle watching the talking heads on the news yell at each other, let alone engage in conversation with a dear family member whose source of facts is so different from mine that I cannot foresee any possible convergence on the horizon line.

Furthermore, as a CEO, executive, or manager in the context of an organization whose purpose is to try to get work done and make progress toward an outcome – it can feel perilously distracting. You may feel you’re playing the role of a therapist in your one-on-one meetings or wondering to what degree of activism your team or your company should be playing.

It’s tempting to want to turn it all off. To say, “Feel free to have these conversations on your own time, in your own private life, but not here – they’re dragging down the company.

However, rarely does the shutting down of energy result in the felt, relieving experience of a release of energy. In fact, the opposite.  Stifled feels, well, stifled. Our intention to unburden ourselves, in fact, can create a greater burden for our team in the effort they must now put in to avoid sharing a part of themselves and their lives. Leaders cannot extricate what the team feels is inextricably linked:  our political lives and our work lives.

Saying “don’t talk about this…” doesn’t lighten the load – it increases it. 

It doesn’t have to be this way.

While uncomfortable and arduous, I do believe it is possible for leaders to hold space for civil political discourse in their own team. Yes, it takes effort. And yes, outcomes may vary depending on your context. 

But, the reality is that there is no other reality. Political events and ideas affect the day-to-day lives of our team members and our customers, whether that experience for you or them is pleasant or not, and whether that experience is the same for you as it is for them.

To not consider politics is to ignore one of the many dimensions influencing the context we’re given to lead. After all, as a leader, considering the many factors in our context – be it the market, our competitors, our customers, our board members, our partners, our employees – is essential to us leading well. Politics is part of that context.

Does this mean that everyone on your team needs to advocate for certain political candidates, or that everyone should divulge where they stand on every political issue? By all means, no. One extreme does not have to replace another.

An alternative path exists. Below, I share a few ideas on how we as leaders can answer the question, “How political should I let my team be?” for ourselves – and what exactly we can do about it.

First, root yourself in your organization’s vision.

When we consider the question, “How political should I let my team be?” one of the first roadblocks we as leaders can get tripped up on is, “I feel that political discussion is a distraction.” 

It’s a fair sentiment, as it can feel initially distracting… But, as leaders, we must consider our broader aim of the vision we aspire to – and the degree to which that politics is relevant, involved, or influences that vision.

Ask yourself: “In what way does my team aspires to better the world? To what degree is that world influenced by politics?” Be honest with yourself. For us here at KYT, our vision is a world where bad leaders are the exception and not the norm. That world includes a world where political events and ideas affect employees and managers – and so we, as KYT, try to help leaders navigate how to talk about touchy, political topics with their team (hence, this blog post!). We acknowledge that our vision is inextricably tied to the political realities that the managers we serve are facing. As a result, we commit to enabling civil political discourse, internally, as a team. 

In another vein, large corporations such as Amazon, Google, Netflix, and Starbucks most recently voiced their support to protect voting rights, in light of the recent legislative efforts to enact new election requirements. Those corporations have a vision of how they’re bettering the world, and they believe that engaging on this specific political topic affects the better world they are trying to create. 

For yourself:  While you may not be a leader at a large corporation, and while perhaps your organizational vision doesn’t directly interact with political realities as much as we do here at KYT – you can still ask yourself the question, “To what degree is the vision we’re aspiring toward affected by politics?” to observe the connection that appears. 

From this frame, you can gauge for yourself whether political discourse in the workplace, while difficult and time-consuming, is inseparably tied to the vision of your organization – rather than obscuring it.

Second, don’t assume uniformity + invite alternative opinions.

When engaging in political conversation in the workplace, it can be easy to assume that everyone has similar opinions – and that everyone wants to weigh in. Remove those assumptions, as they can pressure folks into feeling that they can’t be authentic to their own political ideas and viewpoints. 

Instead, if there is a political issue or event you want to share and discuss, make it clear that you don’t assume everyone will agree with you, and are not asking them to. 

For example, if you’re sending an article about a political event, consider writing something like one of the statements below, accompanying a link to an article:

  • I feel ___ about this, and it’s affecting my energy at the moment. I don’t know if any of you have been following this, but I’d be happy to share and listen to the different reactions to this event.”
  • I believe ___, but by no means assume that everyone here feels the exact same way. If it’s at all useful, I’d love to have an exchange of ideas on this topic, at some point in the future.”

You can also invite alternative opinions and proactively ask if folks feel uncomfortable from any political conversation in the workplace. This is particularly salient if the company decides it wants to share a message or point-of-view publicly on a political issue. 

For instance, in the wake of the murders of Asian women in Atlanta, I asked our team here at KYT (1) if us sharing a point-of-view on the event would be helpful to our managers that we serve, (2) if they would be open to me writing a blog post on my personal reaction, and (3) if yes, what we as a team want to communicate in the message. 

Looking back, I feel that I could’ve even gone further in inviting conversation around our team’s different reactions to the event. For instance, questions I will be sure to ask going forward are:

  • To what degree do we feel comfortable voicing a point-of-view on this event?
  • Is voicing an opinion on this event in line with our vision for how we want to help our customers?
  • What part(s) of the message draft that I shared does not quite sit right with you?
  • What part(s) of the message draft can we re-word to more accurately reflect our views as a whole?

Third, avoid demonizing while disagreeing.

Our reaction to our colleagues can set the tone for whether political conversation in the workplace is additive. This means avoiding attacking someone when their viewpoint does not line up with yours – and ensuring that your direct reports do not demonize their coworkers either. 

Make it clear to your team that, if folks disagree on a political issue or idea, both people can simply say, “I disagree but respect you and your opinion” – and above all, the workplace should be an inclusive, safe place to have hard discussions without castigating others. 

In practice, this is, of course, difficult. But even explicitly stating to your team that they can use that phrase without harm – “I disagree but respect you and your opinion” – can give permission for the discourse to truly be civil.


Let me be clear: This is not an infallible playbook for ideological harmony.  Nor is it a silver bullet for drama-free, conflict-free workplaces.

Rather, it’s an attempt to share how two seemingly disparate ideas – “social and political realities affect our work lives” and “the #1 purpose of an organization is to make progress toward an outcome that couldn’t be accomplished on one’s own” – are not mutually exclusive. They are bound together. Politics are ingrained in the context of our lives, and as leaders, we have to integrate rather than ignore. 

As leadership professor Gianpiero Petriglieri eloquently posed, “How political should I let my team be?” might be the wrong question altogether.  

Rather, we should ask:  “How well will I enable civil political discourse in my own team?”

Written by Claire Lew

CEO of Know Your Team. My mission in life is to help people become happier at work. Say hi to me on Twitter at @clairejlew.

Comments

  1. Thoughtful response. I appreciate the point about it being exhausting sometimes to have these conversations, and yet counter-productive to try to squash them. Also, saying “we’ll have no political conversations” supports the status quo and makes it harder to work for change where change is needed.

  2. Everything that Claire writes is pure gold and should be mandatory reading for every single leader. She is thoughtful, well-intentioned, gracious, and invokes curiosity. Thank you Claire, for always standing by your vision of creating good leaders.

  3. Today’s political discussions can be very polarizing, and discussions around them do not necessarily lead to any resolution or release of tension/frustration. My strong recommendation is that leaders focus team conversations on the mission, objectives and vision of the organization, and leave politics alone. By having everyone work as a team on mission, objectives and vision it is unifying and shares a common purpose. Teams can rally around this, and be more tolerant of each other, irrespective of political ideology. We need to find a way to not see events as polarizing or racial – for example the death of the people in Atlanta was terrible, yet had no racial animus. And not everyone who was shot was Asian. I hope for the day when we can talk about people without jumping to trite or immediate and typically erroneous assumptions, driven primarily by the satiable need of the news cycle to drive clicks not clarity.

  4. A diverse staff means diverse opinions on how to do things, and if you’ve got the respect culture right, then is politics not just an extension of that? There is an argument though to keep some views to yourself as a boss, in case you alienate customers for no reason.

    BTW my own boss told us, “nobody should know how you vote.” But that’s wise advice, as I currently work with elected politicians and their staff.

  5. Adam Grant has good advice in his new book, Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know, on the subject. Two takeaways:
    1) Act like scientists–be open to new information–not preachers–who ‘know’.
    2) You can present your ideas as if you are right, but you should listen as if you are wrong.
    Adam also says it is important to have conversations on difficult issues. Jordan Peterson among others agrees. Sharing ideas and information, even if uncomfortable, creates learning. It is always good to learn!

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