How leaders can bring workplaces together when their country is divided

A person holds a placard near the White House after Election Day in Washington, U.S., November 4, 2020.
A person holds a placard near the White House after Election Day in Washington, U.S., November 4, 2020.
Image: Reuters/Hannah McKay
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The United States finally has a president-elect but it remains a nation that feels truly divided. Pulling the country together sounds like a job for the politicians, but there’s little reason to believe they will meet this challenge with quick success (if they agree to meet it at all). This means that come Monday morning, as Americans file back in (or log back on) to their workplaces, it will be up to managers to create a sense of cohesion despite the turmoil, if not for the good of their country than for the good of their teams.

“There are probably very few managers who signed up to do this job in this particular way,” says Heidi Brooks, senior lecturer in organizational behavior at Yale University. “And yet, it falls to people who are leading every day to help hold things together, so that the organization can do its work, and people can function.”

Like it or not, team leaders are getting a crash course in organizational psychology and workplace culture, one made all the more difficult by physical distancing measures that mean some companies are still working entirely remotely, and are missing the typical moments—hallway exchanges or catch-ups by the coffee maker, for instance—that naturally help people connect, says Brooks. But it’s periods like this, she adds, when “the DNA of our culture and our team dynamics really show.”

Managing effectively through political tension won’t look the same in every workplace, but there are a few universal truths that can help managers wring some meaning out of this emotional and uncomfortable time.

Empathy is about wisdom, not emotionality

One seemingly obvious requirement of the moment is that it requires empathic leadership, something management books and thought leader-types have talked about for years. But now that the concept is being put to the test, Brooks warns against making the common mistake of equating empathy with emotionality.

Even beyond the election results, your employees or colleagues may be “slammed by so many emotions, enduring the uncertainty of the pandemic, and unsettled ongoing questions about racial justice, including in the workplace,” she says. Still, having empathy doesn’t mean “sitting down and crying with people.”

Empathy is about understanding another person’s perspective, a difficult but necessary habit in the workplace. We show different degrees of empathy at work all the time, whether it’s in dealing with customers, board members, business partners, or each other, says Brooks. “The nuanced capacity to take perspective is actually an essential, everyday leadership skill.” What it should communicate, Brooks says, is “I see how you feel,” not necessarily “I feel the same way.”

This is an important distinction, and not just for the moment at hand. “If that’s the only time you connect with a person—when you come from the same place—you’re going to be compromised,” she warns.

And remember, this won’t be the last test of office culture—”we have more hard times before us,” says Brooks—”so we have to be more robust, individually and collectively.”

Use abstractions—and avoid claiming the higher moral ground

There’s nothing to gain from promoting political division in the workplace, says Brooks—but it’s also only human to focus on the negative and all that’s going sideways in high-stress, uncertain situations. For managers, pushing back against that natural bias requires intentional communication. For those feeling alienated by differences at work, it’s necessary to shift your attention to what’s still positive in your relationships.

That might start by taking stock of your own emotions as a form of workplace self-management, as Dian Killian, a Brooklyn-based workplace communication consultant and certified trainer with the International Center for Nonviolent Communication, suggests. Brooks also warns against believing that you have personally taken the higher ground; that’s a frame of mind that can lead to self-righteousness and saying something that you’ll regret later.

Instead, managers might seek unifying mantras, by getting “abstract—to a level where that sense of shared purpose and values feels true,” Brooks advises. “We all care about this workplace, we all care about being able to get through this time, we all care about the wellbeing of the country. Those are probably fair abstractions.”

She isn’t suggesting that managers completely withhold their own opinions and avoid complexities or moral questions, but that they—and anyone—first ask: How will what I’m about to say play out over the next 10 minutes, weeks, months, or years?

Don’t make assumptions about how particular populations are feeling

Unpacking the racial dynamics around the 2020 election is hardly straightforward. Donald Trump—who is widely accused of enacting racist policies and encouraging his racist followers—apparently gained Black and Latino voters since 2016 (though the vast majority of Black and Latino voters still voted for Democrat Joe Biden).

Meanwhile, that some white progressive Americans were surprised just by the closeness of the race was baffling, or telling, at least to some Black Americans who took to social media to ask, in essence, Have you been paying attention?

The manager’s job is to avoid making assumptions about how different communities in the workplace are feeling, says Brooks. “It’s always important to acknowledge the possibility that there’s differential experience across demographics,” she tells Quartz, “Assuming some kind of monolithic experience is dangerous.”

Anchor your inquiries in curiosity and empathy, she advises. It’s during times like this when you learn whether your workplace has a culture where you can say, “Hey, what’s this election like for you?” If not, you know that work needs to be done.

Set up a forum for listening to people who have been most impacted by the election

Managers also have to intentionally create a sense of belonging for all, says Daisy Auger-Dominguez, chief people officer at Vice Media Group. In this election year, that means “you have to recognize that there’s been real harm that has occurred, for the black community, and most managers don’t even think about having that conversation.”

In 2016, when many Americans were surprised by Trump’s win over Hillary Clinton, Auger-Dominguez was a diversity and inclusion consultant at Google. “I remember after the election going to an event that was predominantly for Black and Latina employees at Google,” she says. “It was the most somber event. People were crying, we had to start late, we had to create space for that emotional relief of all this pain and concern.”

The Latino employee resource group then set up another meeting later in the week. It became so popular that eventually every other employee resource group was invited and thousands joined online. Because it happened to be timed close to a senior leadership meeting, Auger-Dominguez asked Google CEO Sundar Pichai if he, too, would mind joining, “because I think you might want to hear from folks,” she recalls asking.

Pichai joined for 30 minutes of the two-hour session, she says, and “[i]t really was incredibly emotional and cathartic.” The leadership team got to hear people say, “Listen, I’m an immigrant and I’m terrified about whether the company is going to protect me, because I know this new president does not want immigrants,” she says.

She also shared a personal story with the group about what happened that morning at home, when her then eight-year-old daughter, who is Latina, learned that Trump had won the election. “She looked at me and she said ‘But he doesn’t like people that look like us,’”Auger-Dominguez told the crowd.

A South Asian employee in the US was afraid for her daughter who had already been teased for her dark skin in her schoolyard. Now, her mother was afraid that the teasing would be even worse.

When Quartz spoke to Auger-Dominguez, she was considering holding a similar meeting at Vice Media to unpack the emotional impact of the 2020 election, and inviting leadership again.

Managers and leaders need to know what people are dealing with at home, because it will impact how they’re going to be engaging in the workplace, she says. “For years we have been telling employees to bring their authentic self to work,” she notes. “Now we have to contend with the fact that people are bringing their entire selves to work.”