How to Unify Your Staff in Polarized Times

Political divides are starker than ever in the United States. That puts association leaders in a position to lead not just their staffs but their industries.

It’s election season in an odd-numbered year, which means election season is a little less stressful for most people. My ballot this year involves no elected seats, just relatively pro forma and uncontested bond measures. No campaign signs crowd busy intersections near my home, which means there are no campaign signs around to be defaced.

This won’t last, though—midterm elections are coming next year. And the tensions around that should be a concern for anybody leading an association, even if your association doesn’t do advocacy. Americans are very contentious these days around hot-button topics like race, religion, and politics, more so than most other nations. A Pew Research study released last week found that Americans are more conflicted around social issues than other developed nations. Ninety percent said that there are strong or very strong conflict between people supporting different political parties; nearly 60 percent say people disagree on basic facts underlying social issues.

Each day, we engage with colleagues who don’t necessarily share our social and political views.

As a group of consultants and nonprofit leaders recently wrote in Harvard Business Review, this split matters at the office because “the workplace is one of the few remaining social spaces for repeated group interaction and cooperation. … Each day, we engage with colleagues who don’t necessarily share our social and political views in order to complete a common mission.” That’s good news. But preserving that dynamic requires attention.

This can be tricky: Social-justice protests last year prompted a lot of organizations to think about how to handle conversations in-house, thinking about how to develop transparency around race without making the workplace further divided. Associations aren’t always obligated to take a stand on issues, but, as a 2020 Associations Now feature article pointed out, they ought to develop processes for identifying what matters to members and staff, and how and when to speak out.

Some of the lessons of 2020 still apply, according to the authors of “How Business Leaders Can Reduce Polarization.” Leaders need to demonstrate an openness to talking about social issues in the first place—there’s evidence that employees move on if they feel unheard, a factor that’s become more meaningful during the Great Resignation. It can also create an environment where employees can speak up on hot topics while providing “guidance on how employees can keep conversations respectful.”

An online forum, though, however well-moderated, won’t settle a contentious environment alone. This is a classic case where the tone from the top matters. The HBR article authors suggest leaders should build volunteer groups around common interests outside of politics, a “powerful lever to create meaningful interactions.” But leaders can also demonstrate their interest in creating a cooperative and open environment by speaking out not just to employees but to the organization’s entire ecosystem, communicating the ideas and conduct it supports and engaging in “richer interactions with a company’s immediate stakeholders.” For an association leader, that means leading by example for its individual members or companies. It’s an opportunity to show how collaboration is done.

Of course, the 2022 election cycle will still be a noisy one, full of disputed facts, strong words, and clumsy memes. But if it’s true that work is where people of different persuasions are most likely to have to get along, there’s a great opportunity for association leaders to have an impact on that noise. And now is as good at time to start as any.

How has your association handled conversations around hot-button issues? Share your experiences in the comments.

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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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