I’m writing this post a few days before the historic presidential election of 2016.
No matter who wins, an enormous number of people are going to feel horrified and upset. After all of the heated rhetoric and breaks with political history, it may be even more difficult than usual for people of differing belief systems, social preferences, and cultures to find the necessary middle ground to get back to transacting business and cooperating on projects. And I’m not just talking about the House and the Senate!
I think of myself as pretty even-tempered, but as the election has approached, I’ve found myself going from anger to fear to tears multiple times, worrying about what comes next. I’ve been disappointed to discover that someone I’ve liked in other contexts just isn’t someone I can talk to right now. After any battle royale, it’s tough for the victor and the vanquished to sit at a common table. If harsh things have been said, or loyalties claimed too loudly, or aspersions cast too forcefully, it can be a challenge to find safe space for rapprochement.
Find Bridges to Common Ground
When you’re passed over for a promotion, it can be very hard to support the person who got the job you wanted. When a colleague’s proposal wins out over yours, and you can see exactly how and where it’s going to fall flat, it can be difficult to work together in a collegial manner. But if we wish to keep a going concern going, then no matter how challenging it is, we must find ways to move past our differences and disappointments.
Perhaps we can face the election’s outcome more comfortably if we think of it in the practical terms of workplace civility. People with whom we disagree wholeheartedly may be our customers, suppliers, colleagues, bosses, or subordinates. In family-owned-and-operated outfits, they may even be our relatives. These three tactics should help us get back to business together:
- Commit to respectful, dignified coexistence as you would after any conflict. Don’t box yourself in by sticking to your own kind and creating a new organizational silo. Rebuild civility by identifying shared interests and participating in joint activities. Seek the values that you hold in common. Show your appreciation for what others do. Look for shared humanity and commonality of good intent, with no punishment for being the wrong kind or having the wrong beliefs.
- Maintain equanimity with political opponents instead of rushing away like a frightened animal or rushing forward like a vigilante. If someone’s acting out, don’t take the bait, and don’t respond in kind. Don’t treat them as if they’re stupid and wrong. Be calm and deliberate, purposefully open-minded and curious: “I want to hear more. I wonder what this means to you? Tell me how you came to think that?”
- Remember that when organizations have diversity of both nature and opinion, it’s been shown to produce better outcomes. Take steps to reduce both explicit and unconscious “othering” — labeling people, usually from minority populations, as “them,” and actively trying to keep “them” separate from “us.” Keep in mind that minority status is not only based on congenital characteristics, but that it can also include differing from the majority view held in a particular department. So don’t reject someone for something you “just don’t like” about them but can’t put your finger on. And definitely don’t reject someone just because your “group” doesn’t care for or support their views. Make your reactions explicit only to yourself, and then consciously practice moving beyond them: “Okay, I see something I don’t particularly care for about this person. But how could they play a valuable part in our efforts anyway? And would I have the same reaction if their comment/behavior came from someone I liked and trusted?”
Wait Until Next Year
The only exception to these approaches is when you encounter unacceptable transgressive behavior such as bullying, lying, or personal attacks. Those sorts of behavior should still be handled through the classical workplace norms of coaching, counseling, and corrective action.
Part of the American way, in both baseball and politics, is to remember that there’s always another chance. So for now, let’s try to use appropriate workplace norms to help us get back to work — together — and to think about how we can help strengthen this generation of leaders and develop the next one.
Onward and upward,