How to Lead Your Team Through Election Stress

Politics likely has your teams more keyed up than usual this year. Ignoring it is futile, and potentially counterproductive. But it can be managed.

Tomorrow is Election Day—please vote if you haven’t already!—and there’s a good chance that politics has changed your office culture, whether you know it or not. Last week, my colleague Ernie Smith pointed to research from the American Psychological Association showing that more than two-thirds of Americans are likely to say that the upcoming presidential election is a significant source of stress, a leap from the 2016 election.

57 percent of employees say they have discussed politics at work.

So it’s perhaps inevitable that some of that stress is going to spill over into the office. (Or into the office Slack and Zoom chats.) After all, so many of the leading issues in the election have a direct impact on employers: healthcare, public health, equality, and employment itself. In the past, conventional wisdom has dictated that it’s best to put limits on political conversations at the office, for fear of stoking needless divisions and arguments among employees. (Plus, there are legal guidelines around political speech in the workplace.) But a different, more stressful time may require a different approach.

The moment is an opportunity for leaders to cultivate cohesion amid dissent, writes Rebecca Knight in Harvard Business Review. So for starters, resist the instinct to cut off political conversation entirely. (It’s not happening anyway: According to Glassdoor, 57 percent of employees have discussed politics at work. [PDF]) Instead, model the kind of behavior you want to see by setting some “rules of engagement.” Prioritize reflection and respect, Knight writes, and use disagreements as opportunities to find common ground.

Leadership training executive Emily Gregory notes that “our political values are shaped by our life experiences,” and that we should “seek to understand others’ experiences and what led to their beliefs.”

That said, leaders have some rocky terrain to navigate. On one side, there are people in your office who want zero, zip, nada to do with political discussions in the workplace—60 percent of respondents to the Glassdoor survey say it’s inappropriate—and those wishes ought to be honored. On the other side, being open to political conversations means running the risk of people inappropriate comments. Leaders have to be prepared to call them out, and allow employees to call them out too.

Gregory notes that any inappropriate comment needs to be addressed, with leaders discussing individually with the person who made the statement. Not doing so effectively gives that person permission to continue making them.

Is all of this careful management worth it? Consider that there’s a cost to not putting in the effort. Babson College management professor Tina Opie tells Knight that trying to enforce silence can impact employees too. “Some people already feel they are rendered invisible” by current political trends, especially around social justice, and your silence can be seen as a political gesture in its own right.

But regardless of how you choose to manage political conversations in your office, expect to be doing so for a while. In another HBR article, “Don’t Let Election Passions Roil Your Workplace,” marcom executive Bob Feldman notes that election results will stoke some resentment among supporters for the losing side, and a delay in election results will exacerbate anxiety. Either way, Feldman writes, the election is “the elephant in the room” and requires your attention.

In that regard, leaders can model appropriate behavior. “Show leadership through empathy,” he writes. “The day after the election, and likely, for some days after that, will be a time to showcase the softer skills of leadership. Empathize with the challenge we all may face to keep our cool as post-election conflict escalates to its climax.”

How have you been managing political conversations among your staff in the run-up to Election Day? Share your experiences in the comments.

(ronniechua/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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