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June 3, 2024

Leader Strategies for Navigating a Politically Divided Workplace This Election Season


The highly polarized 2024 election climate challenges business leaders and communicators facing the enormous task of communicating to a divided group of employees, customers, and other stakeholders wanting to feel respected and heard.

Given just how intense the political environment has become, leaders surely have their hands full. That was abundantly clear at a recent meeting of the Communication Leaders of Chicago, a group of senior communications and public relations professionals focused on addressing strategic approaches to emerging challenges in our field.

Many of the veteran leaders at our recent meeting said the 2024 election season is the most fraught political and communications environment they’ve ever seen.

“It’s truly a hyper intense time,” said Eric Sedler, managing partner of Avoq and interim CEO of World Business Chicago. Sedler said that because the country is essentially equally divided along party lines, every day leaders and communicators have the potential to offend nearly half the population on many social and political issues.

Many other leaders said the tone and tenor of everything that’s discussed is much more dialed up than in the past, fueled in part by the growing prevalence of social media.

“People have less and less trust in institutions. … In many cases, their primary source of information is social media,” said Michael Spikes, a Northwestern University instructor and director of Medill's Teach for Chicago Journalism program.

Importance of Being Thoughtful When Communicating on Political Topics

Leaders cautioned communicators to be especially thoughtful when they decide to communicate on emerging political or social conflicts, given the high stakes that come with offending any particular group. Yet in other cases, particularly when issues are directly related to a company’s core values, employers should feel compelled to weigh in or consider taking a more active role or stance.Given that it’s a delicate balancing act to make these calls, planning ahead and thinking through which types of issues would prompt a particular response is often helpful.

There’s also the difficult matter of how to manage potentially divisive speech inside the workplace, when an employee shares a political view that’s offensive to colleagues. While there’s a right to free speech, a fine line is crossed when that speech becomes hurtful in a work environment, and that’s where employers can help set the right tone.

The following are some of the key points I believe all communicators and leaders should keep top of mind as they work through this challenging political time:

1. Recognize and prepare for the potential damaging impact of political speech.

At a time when political passions run high, it’s easy for even offhanded comments to damage the work culture, especially when employers do little to communicate what’s acceptable or senior leaders set a poor tone from the top.

I saw this firsthand at a recent business meeting. As the group discussed plans for the coming year, the topic of the November election inadvertently came up. A senior leader then said something negative about one of the presidential candidates and his political party. While the leader may have just been trying to be real in the moment and may not have thought much of it, an awkward silence followed, with people glancing at each other and not knowing what to say and whether to change topics.

That experience drove home for me just how difficult and trust shattering these kinds of moments can be for employees. Whether the person speaking is a boss, a colleague, or a customer, there’s the risk of shutting others down, or even making colleagues feel a lack of safety and support for who they are or what they believe in.

For these reasons, companies might consider providing employees guidelines, encouraging associates to refrain from potentially offensive or hurtful opinions regarding political topics – essentially extending the concept of no divisive political talk at the Thanksgiving dinner table to the workplace.

If a political discussion does come up, perhaps initiated by a customer, employees should keep in mind how important it is to be respectful of those with differing opinions and give others a chance to express their views without judgment.

2. Be authentic.

Many members of the Communication Leaders of Chicago group shared an opinion that I couldn’t agree with more – the importance of relying on company values to guide which issues an organization publicly or internally addresses. For instance, if a company champions sustainability, equality, or protecting the climate, issues around those topics should warrant open communication to all stakeholders, including employees, customers, and shareholders.

One example is Patagonia, a company that has been very deliberate about sharing its progressive values. One of its core values is to “protect our home planet … we partner with grassroots organizations and frontline communities to restore lands, air, and waters to a state of health; to arrest our addiction to fossil fuels; and to address the deep connections between environmental destruction and social justice.” With a vivid statement like that, Patagonia wouldn’t be true to its values if it sat on the sidelines during a major political debate about environmental legislation.

Similarly, a company that serves farmers should naturally share opinions on policies serving the agricultural community. Meanwhile, a hospital network would likely need to address public policies related to the nursing shortage, or concerns with adequate access to health care in poor communities.

Further, if a company takes time to establish values related to equality and human rights, it’s important to “walk the talk” with actions that demonstrate a genuine commitment to that goal.

3. Remember that workers crave manager support.

A recent survey The Grossman Group conducted with the Harris Poll, found that the constant pace of change and a variety of new demands on employees are contributing to widespread burnout among employees and managers today, with 76% of employees and 63% of managers reporting that they feel burned out or ambivalent about their work.

The research also identified one point that stopped us in our tracks: 89% of managers said their employees are thriving, yet just 24% of employees actually feel that they are thriving.

This research underscores the need for more manager support and training on how best to check in with teams and ensure employees feel respected and engaged. This can be especially important during a fraught election season, when emotions can escalate and impact an employee’s sense of safety and well-being. Employees who are thriving said the top three reasons were the following: a manager “invested in their success;” an empathetic manager; and approachable senior leadership.

It’s important to emphasize that support from leadership isn’t about taking a political side. Instead, it’s about being there for your employees and showing them you care about their emotional and physical well-being and engagement at work.

4. Commit to overall employee well-being during this election season.

Too often, toxic work environments don’t just happen organically. Controversies, hurt feelings, disengagement, and attrition occur when leadership fails to follow through on an organization’s stated values and/or loses sight of the overall well-being of employees and customers.

5. Bring a Heart First perspective to your communications approach.

In my decades of advising leaders at top companies, I’ve seen one of the most effective traits of strong leaders is something that’s often not discussed – the ability to connect with employees and colleagues in a human way – what I call Heart First leadership. This is about a leader understanding that nothing important gets done without genuine relationships, buy-in, trust, and support. When leaders embody empathy, humanity, and authenticity, they build stronger, more trusting relationships and a thriving, purpose-driven organization.

While no organization can reverse the tense political world we’re living in, leaders can help a lot by communicating to employees and stakeholders that the workplace is one place where divisiveness and offensive speech aren’t tolerated, and where policies promoting the company’s core values will be championed.

How will these strategies help you navigate political conversations in your workplace?

—David Grossman

Conducting well-being check-ins with your employees is one of the best ways to show them you care about how they’re doing both inside and outside of work. Discover how with the help of this guide, 10 Steps to Do a Well-Being Check-In. Click the image below to download today.

Manager Quick Guide: 10 Steps to Do a Well-Being Check-In

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