Are political conversations derailing employee productivity?

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Photo by Hamza Butt | Flickr Creative Commons

This year has proven to be politically dynamic and precarious. To seek clarity, solidarity, or any number of self-gratifying solutions, we’re often motivated to process the news aloud with those in our vicinity, including colleagues. Unsurprisingly, it turns out that political conversations at the office can become contentious, disrupting productivity and damaging professional relationships.

According to a recent Accountemps survey of over 1,000 office workers across North America, more than half of workers reportedly feel that talking politics in the office can get heated and offend others. So who is more likely to voice their opinion in the office? Fifty-two percent of workers age 18 to 34 said that discussing politics at work helps keep them informed, and 31 percent have gotten into an intense discussion with a co-worker over political differences.

While it’s nice to take a break from work to talk about worldly topics, unchecked conversational habits can cross a delicate line. However, there are plenty of effective ways for employees and managers to maintain appropriate boundaries when it comes to discussing politics.

Reminders When Discussing Politics at Work
• Do speak with tact. It’s important to phrase opinions carefully to avoid offending anyone. Take care to express ideas and thoughts in a way that doesn’t come across as judgmental toward your colleagues.

• Do know when to walk away. If the discussion becomes confrontational, change the subject or express your preference to keep political chitchat outside of the workplace. Remember that what you say to a colleague outside of work, regarding political observations, may cause them to form a false impression of you at work.

• Don’t debate or lecture. Try to approach the conversation in a lighthearted manner, if you must indulge in political talk. Instead of focusing on hot-button issues about political topics, limit yourself to general comments or try to change the subject.

• Don’t bring up politics. Often, the best thing to do is not to bring up politics at all. Instead, talk about what you did over the weekend, if you are looking forward to the holidays, or other nonpolitical news.

Navigating Distractions
The top reason workers lost productivity during the most recent election cycle was by engaging in non-work conversations. It’s best to avoid political gossip altogether, and there are ways to stay out of office banter if you’re pressed for time:

• Set aside time at the beginning of your day to think about what you need to accomplish. With looming deadlines, you are less likely to socialize.

• Take breaks at scheduled times to jabber with co-workers. If the conversation turns controversial, take this as a cue to return to work.

• Politely let co-workers know you have deadlines to meet, and they won’t expect you to engage in office banter.

New to the Office?
Before delving into political discourse with colleagues, first consider the consequences of the conversation and don’t feel pressured into sharing your views. Additionally, steer clear of making assumptions about what people believe — you may be surprised. Lastly, consider the environment — do the remarks come up during lunch or happy hour? Even if the environment is casual, the dialogue could get dicey, and it’s best to tread lightly.

Lead by Example
As a manager, it is best to use caution when discussing politics with co-workers. Set the tone from the top that it’s OK to have differing views and learn to respect others’ opinions. A discussion about politics is just that — an exchange, not a debate. Managers must embrace the varying viewpoints of their teammates and colleagues.

While it’s common for workplace chatter to include topical events, it’s best to avoid divisive topics that can become highly emotional. If you’re unexpectedly drawn into a distracting exchange of political views, bow out gracefully and let the other person know you have to attend to a project. Regardless of where you work, some conversations will get intense. While you can’t control other employees’ actions, you can control your own.

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