How to talk about politics at work

Our ability to do our best work is inextricably linked to what is happening in our lives in and outside of the office.
Our ability to do our best work is inextricably linked to what is happening in our lives in and outside of the office.
Image: REUTERS/Chris Aluka Berry
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The Muslim ban, the Charlottesville protests, the trans military ban, police brutality against black and brown communities, and the looming threat of DACA ending: Over the last year, political events have impacted various marginalized communities.

If you are wondering whether your team is distracted or feeling less engaged at work because of current events, stop wondering. They are.

You may be someone who is able to disengage and not think about these issues, but in that case, recognize you have privilege. Many people who are directly or indirectly impacted do not have the option to “turn off.” Our ability to do our best work is inextricably linked to what is happening in our lives in and outside of the office: Think of how you might feel when your child is sick at home, when your roof is leaking, when you’re going through a terrible breakup, or when someone you love is diagnosed with cancer: you can’t “be there” at work 100%. Now, imagine these feelings piling up each time you see traumatic public news impacting various marginalized communities. Add to this pile of emotion the additional burden marginalized workforce feel to “cover” their whole selves at work so they can conduct “business as usual” like their unaffected peers. That’s a fraction of what many people who you work with may be experiencing.

After recent political events,  I’ve had both individual contributors and well-meaning managers tell me their internal dilemmas.

Managers tell me:

  • “I feel like I should say something but I don’t know what to say.”
  • “I don’t want to open up a can of worms / Pandora’s box”.
  • “I don’t want to alienate some people by talking about my political views.”
  • “I feel like talking about politics at work is inappropriate.”

Individual Contributors tell me:

  • “My manager (or leadership or CEO) hasn’t said anything about ______. Do they even care?”
  • “I feel like my office doesn’t even know what’s happening. No one’s talking about it. ”
  • “I want to talk about what’s happening, but I don’t know if it’s appropriate for me to bring it up. I’m scared I’ll be seen as too ‘political.’”
  • “I feel alone in feeling depressed by everything that’s going on.”

The truth is, not talking about politics won’t stop people from thinking, feeling, or whispering about it. In order to create a truly “inclusive workplace,” leaders need to acknowledge how their employees’ lives are impacted by forces outside the office. Here are ways people managers can help boost psychological safety in times of political turbulence:

1) Acknowledge what is happening

It doesn’t take a lot for you to just name what is happening. Let your team know you’re paying attention and that you believe it’s important enough to acknowledge it. Don’t be afraid to share your emotions — vulnerability builds trust.

Phrases you can use:

  • “I want to acknowledge what is happening in our country…”
  • “I am devastated by what happened over the weekend…”
  • “There’s a lot going on politically right now…”

You might be thinking, “what if someone doesn’t agree with my beliefs?” Well, this is a real possibility. At some point, you have to make a conscious decision to take a stand by asking yourself: are you okay with your team thinking you don’t care, or worse, that you condone what is happening? Your team will remember your compassion as well as your silence.

2) Check-in with your team

Be proactive in letting your team know you care. Present yourself as a resource for them in case they need support.

Ways to check-in with your team:

  • Do a group check-in in the beginning of your team meeting.
  • Check in with your direct report during your 1-on-1.
  • Send a team-wide email or chat.
  • Schedule a team lunch, or coffee break.
  • Take a walk with your direct reports for your 1-on-1, or even as a team if your team is small enough, to get out of the office setting.

Phrases you can use:

  • Team meeting: “Let’s go around and do a quick check-in on how everyone is feeling. Name one emotion you’re feeling, and one thing we can do to support you this week.”
  • Team lunch: “How’s everyone feeling? How are you taking care of yourselves with everything that’s happening?”
  • Email / Slack: “In light of _______, I just want to check in with you all and let you know that I am here for you if you want to talk or need support. Schedule a meeting with me or come by to chat any time.”
  • Walk: “How about a walk outside of the office? With everything going on, I think we can use some fresh air and breathe.”

3) Reduce or redistribute labor and emotional burdens

This is where understanding of your organizational power and privilege as a manager comes in handy.

Immediately following a traumatic political event, consider reducing the labor burden on your team. You can do this in multiple ways, depending on the business context. If you have the flexibility and power, allow folks to leave work early to dedicate time for self-care. Allow or encourage people to work remotely if needed. Ask your team how you can shift work deadlines or priorities for them. Involve your team in redistributing people’s workload.

Phrases you can use:

  • “Would it be helpful if we pushed the deadline for ______ to next week?”
  • “Let’s revisit our priorities as a team: what are the most important things we need to get done this week? What can we punt to next week, when we may be more effective in achieving our goals?”

Take on additional emotional burden so your team members representing marginalized communities (e.g., people of color, trans people, etc.) don’t have to. This could mean that you, as a person with more organizational power than your direct reports, step in to educate or answer questions from employees in dominant groups (e.g., white, cis-gender, etc.) or that you intervene when you observe microaggressions.

Note the dynamic may differ if you as the manager are impacted and need to offload labor or emotional burden — look for allies among your peers or superiors to support you. Remember that you need support, too.

4) Care for your team as people, not just workers

This is an opportunity for you to be human and treat others like they are human as well. Genuinely care about your team’s well being. Half-decent managers should be doing this all the time, by the way.

Ways to care for your team’s well-being:

  • Hold your team accountable for practicing self care, for instance, by encouraging the team to create quarterly self-care goals or OKRs (Objectives and Key Results) and share their progress.
  • Organize or participate in events showing your solidarity with communities impacted — do this as a team, or let your team know they can join you (e.g., volunteering, protest, phone-banking, etc.).
  • Know that some of your team members may seem distant or disengaged for some time. Recognize this is a valid self-care strategy. Respect their boundaries and ask what support looks like for them. Caring for people sometimes looks like giving people the space and boundaries they need.

5) Host safe discussion spaces

Collaborate with other emotionally intelligent and inclusive leaders to form ad-hoc discussion circles. Send an invite to your teams or announce it more broadly so people not in your department can also join. It’s extremely important, though, to recognize safe discussion spaces take conscious planning and skillful facilitation. If not done well, you may end up causing more harm and lose control of the room to a few vocal, well-meaning but not-so-self-aware individuals. If you don’t know how to handle the “but isn’t that reverse-racism?” conversation, you’re probably not ready to host a discussion space.

Tips for creating a safe discussion space:

  • Set clear goals and expectations for the space: why are you meeting? Is the space for venting, action planning, or something else? Communicate these expectations prior to the meeting.
  • Ensure the discussion space feels safe physically: go for a sound-proof conference room rather than an open lunch area. Limit the number of people to a manageable size that feels intimate.
  • Secure a skilled facilitator: ensure there’s a facilitator who knows how to work with different personalities, navigate through tension, and address tough questions. If you don’t have anyone who can fill this role, you may want to consider an external facilitator.
  • Set ground rules (a.k.a. “community agreements”) before discussing: these rules can include confidentiality, right to pass, speaking from “I” perspective, etc.
  • Depending on the discussion topic and context, you may want to consider having closed-group sessions for different identity groups. For example, if you want to create a safe space for healing dialogues after a traumatic event like Charlottesville, you may want to create two separate spaces, one for employees of color and another for white allies.

6) Develop a formal response as a leadership team

This is somewhat of an “advanced” tip, given you may not have the right level of influence or power at your company. But for you brave souls, if you haven’t heard anything from your executive leadership team, make a suggestion to release a formal response. It doesn’t have to be an external statement—an internal memo of acknowledgement can go a long way. If you’re a part of the executive team, consider discussing with your CEO the impact of leadership’s silence on the workforce. Get inspiration from other progressive companies making a public stance on important issues affecting their workforce. Even better if your company can put money where its mouth is.

What to say to leadership:

  • “Have you seen the public statements released by companies XYZ? I think it would go a long way for us to do something similar, and let our employees know we care.”
  • “I’m feeling our teams are struggling with what’s happening politically. What can we do to acknowledge what’s happening and empower our managers to create a safe space for their teams?”

7) Get support for yourself

You can’t pour from an empty cup. You need to feel supported in order to provide support for your team. If you’re not your whole yourself, your acts of service will feel performative and hollow. Do you have a workplace bestie you can confide in? Do you feel supported by your manager? What do you need to do to feel grounded and whole?

How managers can feel supported:

  • Form an informal group of inclusive, socially conscious leaders. Meet regularly to brainstorm ideas to reduce bias-based harm in the workplace, share ideas on how to cultivate an inclusive team culture, and to lean on each other for support during challenging times.
  • Seek out external support groups or network of leaders committed to practicing inclusion.
  • Practice self-care! Create your own “self-care toolbox” — trust me, you’ll need this.

You don’t have to be a diversity and inclusion expert to be a great manager, but it takes a great manager to practice inclusion: With awareness, empathy, and courage you, too, can become a great manager and an inclusive leader.

A version of this article first appeared on the Awaken Blog.