Learn to disagree well

Is it okay to talk about politics in the workplace? If so, what are the limits? Or are there none?

In some private sector companies it’s forbidden (and that’s been difficult for many to accept); it’s also forbidden in the public sector (and I’ve found people respect that, perhaps because there’s a very good reason, and it fits with the purpose of the those organisations); in some places it’s permitted; in many places there are no rules or guidance around it.

The problem of discussing politics in the workplace was examined recently in an excellent article in the FT (subscription required). The advice in that article, from experienced professionals, was: Don’t just bring politics into the workplace—do it in a structured way, and make sure people “learn to disagree well”.

In particular, we should accept that a diverse workforce will likely also mean a group of people with diverse political views, even while the organisation may have a set of values it uses to provide a common working culture.

That means it should be acceptable for people to talk about their diverging political views without anyone being made to feel unwelcome at the organisation. We should be able to do this while maintaining the values of the company.

How can we disagree well? The book Conflicted, by Ian Leslie, has lots of good advice here. It’s a very readable combination of real experiences from people in difficult conflict situations and related research. The overall advice includes, among other things, visibly giving the other person respect, not trying to control them, and being genuinely curious.

Occasionally I’ve seen political debates happen successfully in the workplace—there was intelligent discussion and no falling out. It helps if an organisation has clear (and meaningful) values to set boundaries and expectations, and it might offer other guidance specifically for this to happen. After all, disagreeing well is not something that comes naturally to most of us.

Learning to disagree well also helps decision making, because it helps create a culture where diverse options can be explored objectively. This isn’t an accidental benefit, because better, more rounded decision making is one of the material benefits of having a diverse workforce.

Photo by Peter Dean