Skip to content
October 3, 2022

Equipping Leaders and Employees to Manage Polarizing Issues in the Workplace

How to handle polarizing issues in the workplace

Companies and their leaders are facing increasing pressure today to speak out on political and societal issues. Where once a clear boundary may have existed between our professional and personal lives, as the two blend together and trust in key institutions such as government, media and NGOs continues to erode, business leaders are compelled to demonstrate accountability and take a stance.

In fact, the latest Edelman Trust Barometer report finds that the workplace is where we address societal problems, with job-seekers more likely to work for companies that publicly support societal issues. Nearly 7 in 10 employees want their job to bring societal impact, including having a CEO who addresses controversial issues they care about.

So, what is the right answer? When is it the right time to weigh in on an issue, and how can companies do it appropriately? No matter the size or makeup of your organization, these decisions are incredibly complex and require careful consideration of your company’s many stakeholders, including employees, customers, suppliers, investors, and governments, to name a few.

While there are many resources out there to guide companies in taking a stance on challenging issues – from decision-making trees to risk assessment templates to scorecard tools – our point of view at The Grossman Group is that whatever decision a company takes must be consistent with its values and purpose, and that any words are backed by real action.

And further, that it’s the responsibility of leaders to ensure that all employees feel respected, comfortable, and valued in the workplace – regardless of whether a decision is made to weigh in on an issue. This article is not intended to be yet another rubric for decision making, but rather highlight how leaders can consistently and actively foster a positive environment to support employees through these uncertain and volatile times.

Managing the Impact of Polarizing Issues in the Workplace

As a leader, here are three tips to help you manage the impact of challenging societal issues in the workplace:

  1. Look internally first

    While customers, investors and shareholders are priority stakeholders for companies, employees must be considered in the priority set, as well. What does that mean? That they should be informed first of any decision a company is making before it becomes public.

    As I thought about this topic, I was reminded of a focus group we conducted last year for one of our clients. When the group of employees in this company’s warehouse division was asked about how communications might be improved, there was a clear consensus: “We don’t want to find out about something in the news first.” The company had made a decision that would impact their warehouse workforce, and the first employees learned about it was from local news reports.

    Companies can avoid scenarios like the above by putting an internal communications plan in place that brings together key messages, cadence of communication and identifies who is responsible for cascading the information appropriately. Even the strongest leadership teams can benefit from a leader toolkit being shared ahead of a communication that gives them time to digest the messaging, prepares them for advance or follow-up conversations with their teams and provides tips on how to communicate about challenging topics. Keep in mind that anything drafted for an internal audience may be leaked externally.

    As leaders develop internal communications plans and messaging, it’s critical that they not make assumptions about their employee base. As our country becomes more divided on “hot button” issues, it’s likely that most workforces comprise groups with varying viewpoints on an issue. Fostering a positive workplace for all employees means creating a psychologically safe environment and establishing guardrails for respectful dialogue while not alienating those with different perspectives.
  2. Prepare leaders beyond the C-suite

    Often times we see companies where a CEO or senior leader makes a bold statement in a vacuum, and people managers further down in the organization are left unprepared to handle questions and feedback from their team members. Or, a shocking event has occurred, leaving employees at all levels of an organization reeling, anxious and uncertain.

    Research continues to show that employees value and trust communication most from their direct supervisor – not their function leader nor their CEO. When polarizing issues are permeating the workforce or a company is processing difficult news, managers are on the front lines with employees. They are the first ones who sense a morale downturn or cracks in the desired company culture, and the first ones employees look to for answers and reassurance.

    One of the most important skills a manager can have in today’s uncertain times is empathy. Empathy is ultimately about putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and reflecting genuinely on what they are feeling. Logic leads to greater calmness for everyone and more confidence that leadership is the steady hand at the wheel. For today’s anxious employees, that’s a huge leadership win.

    Here are critical steps leaders of all levels can take to demonstrate empathy and better connect with employees:
    • Listen without interruption
    • Pause and imagine how your employee is feeling
    • Show you hear them by reflecting back what they are saying: “What I hear you saying is…”
    • Validate their feelings: “I understand you’re feeling…”
    • Offer support and close the conversation
    • Follow up to see how the person is doing after a little time has passed
    When you communicate with your employees, they want to know you understand where they’re coming from and what they’re feeling. Empathy doesn’t mean you agree. It’s about helping an employee know he or she is being heard. The desire to be heard is a basic human need.
  1. Institute mechanisms for ongoing, active listening

    Empathy is best put into practice when paired with another critical skill set: listening. Not only do individual leaders need to develop their skills as an active listener, but companies must have ongoing listening mechanisms in place to keep a pulse on employee sentiment.

    Here are steps all leaders can take to become an active listener:
    • Approach each dialogue with the goal to learn something. Think of the person as someone who can teach you.
    • Stop talking and focus closely on the speaker. Suppress the urge to think about what you’re going to say next or to multitask.
    • Encourage with positive feedback. If you can see that a speaker has some trouble expressing a point or lacks confidence, encourage him or her with a smile, a nod or a positive question to show your interest.
    • Listen for total meaning. Understand that in addition to what is being said, the real message may be non-verbal or emotional. Checking body language is one way to seek true understanding.
    • Pay attention to your responses. Remember that the way you respond to a question also is part of the dialogue. Keep an open mind and show respect for the other person’s point of view even if you disagree with it.

Additional Ways to Facilitate Employee Listening

Beyond 1:1 conversations with employees or small team meetings, here are additional ways that leaders can facilitate ongoing listening within their organizations:

  • Employee councils – from DEI advisory councils to Storytelling Collectives comprising representatives from each part of your company, meeting with a set group of individuals on a regular basis can create a safe forum for employees to voice their concerns and what’s on their minds.

    Those who facilitate these meetings are responsible for sharing feedback with leadership and reporting back on steps being taken to address any issues raised. A nearly universal complaint we see from employees is being asked to share feedback – through surveys, meetings, etc. – and never seeing it actioned.
  • Ask Me Anything sessions – these sessions, in which employees are encouraged to ask their leaders anything that’s on their mind, facilitate a greater connection between leaders and employees, and importantly, build trust. Consider planning one for a new CEO once settled into the role or between standing Town Halls. The key to a successful AMA is transparency: being clear about how questions can be submitted and how leaders will determine what to answer.
  • Employee focus groups – Get deeper insights into what’s on employees’ minds by having employees take part in a moderated discussion on a particular topic – such as feedback on a recent or (even better) forthcoming announcement, or expectations of leaders. Focus groups can be coupled with engagement surveys to probe deeper into topics that surfaced in the results.

A company’s culture is shaped by all employees – not just leaders at the top. By creating safe spaces for discussion and allowing employees to be vulnerable, active listening helps break down barriers between leaders and employees and alleviates an “us” versus “them” dynamic.

In Conclusion

Choosing not to weigh in on a challenging issue does not absolve a company and its leaders from the responsibility of fostering a positive and safe work environment. With employees holding more leverage than ever before, leaders must consider their employees first, demonstrate empathy at all times and listen intently to their teams. By taking small steps to proactively connect with employees and facilitate an open flow of communications, leaders will be able to engage meaningfully with their teams, respond to their needs and continue driving successful business outcomes.

How are you addressing the impact of challenging societal issues in the workplace?

—Jennifer Hirsch

If you're looking to proactively connect with your employees and facilitate an open flow of communication through employee listening sessions and/or institute ongoing listening mechanisms within your organization, we can help. Click below to contact us today!


About Jennifer

Jennifer_Hirsch-1Jennifer Hirsch is Vice President at The Grossman Group and brings strategic communications experience, a problem-solving mindset and zealous quality control to help clients achieve their business and communications goals. She has collaborated with Fortune 500 clients across the pharmaceutical, hospitality, technology, energy, manufacturing and CPG industries to deliver internal communications solutions and counsel that help companies perform from the inside-out. Connect with Jennifer on LinkedIn  here.

Comments on this post

Other posts you might be interested in

View All Posts