How Political Polarization Is Changing Work
Politics has traditionally been a taboo topic to discuss on the job. But as people get more vocal about their views — on everything from from climate change to racial justice, elections to invasions — it’s increasingly hard to keep debate out of the workplace. And that can lead to conflicts between colleagues. Julia Minson of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and Francesca Gino of Harvard Business School have studied how political polarization is affecting organizations and have advice on handling the challenges it presents. Together, they wrote the HBR article “Managing A Polarized Workforce: How to Foster Debate and Promote Trust.”
ALISON BEARD: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Alison Beard.
There are things that have traditionally been taboo to talk about work, politics, religion, money. We’re living in an age of more transparency. Many of us share our lives and opinions on social media for everyone, including colleagues and bosses to see. And organizations are being told to foster more inclusive cultures by letting people bring their whole authentic selves to work.
What happens when teammates adamantly disagree on big social, political and economic issues though? Or there’s a huge divide between workers in management or an individual boss and their employee? Our guests today have studied the causes of polarization and how to manage it in the workplace. They’ve also worked with dozens of companies to train their people on how to more productively handle conflict.
Julia Minson is an associate professor at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, and Francesca Gino is a professor at Harvard Business School. Together, they wrote the HBR article, “Managing a Polarized Workforce: How to Foster Debate and Promote Trust.” Julia, Francesca, thanks so much for being here.
FRANCESCA GINO: It’s great to be here.
JULIA MINSON: Thanks very much. It’s a pleasure.
ALISON BEARD: We get the sense that people are more divided than ever on certain issues, not just in the US, but around the world. I think about masking, vaccines, racism, gender fluidity, immigration, nationalism, police brutality, education, economic inequality. It’s such a long list. Is that an accurate impression? Are we at peak polarization?
JULIA MINSON: Yeah, Alison, I think that’s absolutely right. There’s more and more research coming out confirming sort of that general impression. We are not only just sort of more divided in terms of our opinions, but we’re also more divided in terms of how we feel towards people on the other side. So there’s sort of more dislike, more visceral dislike towards people who disagree with us than has ever been documented before.
ALISON BEARD: And do you see these divisions spilling over into the workplace, where you have people on both sides of a really heated divide and it’s causing problems?
JULIA MINSON: Yes, absolutely. I mean, partly due to the fact that the home and the workplace has gotten more and more blended. I’ve heard people say it’s not working from home, it’s living at work. We are so intimately intertwined in terms of our work lives and our home lives and our political lives. That it is very easy for our strong feelings about world issues to spill into our professional conversations.
FRANCESCA GINO: I also hear a lot of people commenting on the fact that since a lot of our interactions up and virtually these days, that conflicts and disagreements are in a sense more costly. The reason that opportunity of going by your office or knocking on your door, and making sure that what I said that didn’t hurt your feelings or your ego in a certain way. So there are fewer moments for that personal interactions that might help not damage relationships in the way that happens virtually. And I also find that a lot of people decide not to have the conversation in the first place through our virtual channels. And so I wonder whether a lot of disagreements are disagreements that we don’t embrace because we fear that the conflicts might be a difficult one to handle virtually.
ALISON BEARD: And what role does social media play in all of this?
JULIA MINSON: Yes. Well, social media has gotten a tremendous amount of blame in the conversations about this and probably rightly so. Social media enables people to surround themselves with information that they agree with and with people who support their beliefs. So, to the extent that I’m constantly reading things and interacting with people who support my views, I’m going to come to believe that I’m sort of even more right than I initially thought. When I then encounter people at work or in other aspects of my life who happened to disagree, by contrast, they sound even more unreasonable and more uninformed because I’ve been reading and listening to all these things that support my beliefs.
And do you find that the divisions are worse in certain geographies or industries or types of companies?
FRANCESCA GINO: I think that there are pretty consistent. I think that I find disagreements when I talk to employees and leaders in organization in the United States, but the same is true across the globe. And part of the reasons for that is that a lot of companies have a global imprint. And so you now have colleagues in different locations and given where they grew up or what their country and culture is all about, diversity brings in more opportunity for disagreement.
JULIA MINSON: Right. Although I would add to that that I think depending on how many opportunities people have to interact with folks who have different viewpoints, they sort of gain a skillset for civil disagreement, right? So for example, I recently spoke to a colleague who grew up in a small town in Maine. And she said, “Look, you know, we all live across the street from people who have different signs on their lawn when election time comes, and we have to go to the grocery store together, and we have to go to school together. And so we figure out how to get along and how to be reasonable and civil towards each other.” Whereas I think people who live in places that are much more politically homogenous don’t cultivate that skillset.
FRANCESCA GINO: Part of what research suggests is that we get better at engaging with opinions and perspectives and people who are different if we surround ourselves with them. So there is, in fact in Maine, a great program for the summer where I think there are high school students from Palestine and Israel coming together during camp. And some researchers at Booth have shown that by being together, by engaging in dialogue, by engaging in activities with one another, all of a sudden the way they look at each other or the way they have positive attributes towards one another changes. And so I think that that exposure to what’s different is really an important aspect of engaging with difference.
ALISON BEARD: And so why is it important to address these things at work rather than in neighborhoods or at camps? Why not just encourage people to not discuss these hot button issues and focus squarely on the jobs to be done?
JULIA MINSON: Well, I would say there are two reasons, right? So first of all, a lot of the issues we talk about as being the most polarizing, we think of as political issues. But they’re not just political. They’re issues about how we organize our lives and sort of the policies that we interact through, right?
So when we think about the Black Lives Matter Movement or the MeToo Movement, those have direct implications for the workplace. And the same goes for the arguments about masking. The same goes for arguments about vaccine mandates, right? All of these issues have implications for workplace behavior and organizations need to make decisions around how these issues will be addressed. And so that naturally brings these issues into the workplace.
But I think another reason is when you take issues that are to some extent, purely political, right? So who do you support in the presidential campaign, for example. We actually have research showing that people who share political views are much more likely to be connected in professional networks. Liberals affiliate with liberals and conservatives affiliate with conservatives. And somehow even if their workplace has nothing to do with politics, they still form relationships, sort of informal mentorship and friendship relationships with people who share their political views.
And so you end up in this situation where your professional network is suddenly made up of people who think like you and excludes the people who think differently, which means they’re now getting cut off from opportunities and resources and information and professional advancement.
FRANCESCA GINO: I would also add that in light of the greater levels of our diversity that we see in a lot of organizations, we need to think about inclusion as an important aspect of what as managers or as leaders we get right. And I’ve conducted some recent research that shows that one way for people to feel that they belong, and that they’re included is that they understand and perceive that they’re accepted for what they bring to the table.
And that means their view, their perspectives, not only for issues that are related to work, but more generally as individual human beings. And so if we avoid conversations on issues like politics or whatever issues that is going on in society, I fear that we’re going to end up with organizations where people feel excluded.
ALISON BEARD: I do wonder, we know that leaders tend to want to hire people who share their worldview. And I imagine that’s particularly true when you feel strongly about something whether you’re pro-mask or pro-Brexit. But we should stop ourselves from doing that, right, from bringing in people who think like we do?
JULIA MINSON: Well, yes. So, Alison, you’re touching on sort of the old topic of group think, right? And the incredible temptation that exists to surround ourselves with people who agree with us, and one of the things that we bring up in the article is that we often blame sort of ego or insecurity for that tendency like, “Oh, well, I need somebody to affirm my views. And so I’m going to hire people who think like me.”
But most leaders are not insecure. They’re not egomaniacs. They just hold certain beliefs. And they believe that those who agree with them are right. So they’re right, they’re smart. And that’s why they should be hired.
And so there’s sort of this trap that we fall into where we use our own beliefs as the ultimate gauge of what an accurate belief is and therefore, what an intelligent colleague is. And we end up in an echo chamber of our own creation, right? So absolutely, a sort of priority that I would advocate for is seeking out people who think differently and people who actually disagree with us on things that matter.
ALISON BEARD: Yeah. And I think you need to recognize that your suppliers, your customers, your clients, all of those people might be people who hold very different political views. So while it’s comfortable to sort of stay in the bubble within your own organization, if you don’t have anyone who thinks the other way internally, then you won’t be able to manage those external stakeholders well enough. You mentioned, Francesca, that conflict is super uncomfortable which is why most people avoid it. So how do we get over that?
FRANCESCA GINO: So conflict is uncomfortable. However, research that Julia has conducted with some of the colleagues show that we perceive it to be as more negative than it actually is. So I think that that is a myth that we discuss in the article. And so part of how we can engage in conflict more productively is be more willing to step into disagreements, knowing that it might not be as negative as we thought it to be.
But second is going in with more of an open mind. And again, I’m saying this based on the research that we’ve done and knowing all the benefits that type of open-mindedness brings about, but recognizing that it’s difficult to do.
JULIA MINSON: Quite often when people are sort of thinking, do I want to have this conversation about something that might turn out poorly or when there’s disagreement, they are recalling the most vivid, the most painful, the like ugliest Thanksgiving fight they ever had. And they say, “I really don’t want to do this again.” But at the same time, the average conversation about disagreeing opinions is not that bad. Like it’s not great, but it is not nearly as unpleasant as people imagine it to be. And so reconciling sort of reality with our expectations is a really important first.
ALISON BEARD: We talked about how conflict is uncomfortable, which is why most people avoided. So how do we get over that, Francesca answers?
JULIA MINSON: Quite often when people are thinking about a difficult conversation with someone they disagree with, and they’re deciding whether they even want to have this conversation, they’re sort of searching through their memory and what comes up is the ugliest, the most difficult, the most emotionally-draining Thanksgiving fight they ever had.
Whereas in reality, the average conversation is not that exciting. The average conversation about disagreeing views is not super pleasant, but it’s not nearly that bad. So a big aspect of being willing to engage with opposing views is just reconciling our expectations that are based in the biased recall of our most unpleasant fight ever – reconciling those expectations with the reality that it’s not going to be super pleasant, but it’s also not going to be that bad.
ALISON BEARD: ‘d love to get to the advice that you have for people either faced with conflict, confronted with it or for initiating these kinds of conversations. First, what should an employee do if a colleague or boss says something that they just fundamentally disagree with either at work or they see it happening outside but openly?
JULIA MINSON: So I think the most important first step is to take a break and it might be a matter of taking a breath or it might be a matter of changing the topic and returning to it the following day. It depends on sort of how long of a break the situation calls for. And then really trying to understand what the person meant and where their statement came from. Is it sort of an honest mistake? Was it intended to be offensive? Was it intended to cause a fight? What was this person’s intention?
FRANCESCA GINO: I love that, Julia, because it brings in this idea of, in the face of disagreements, we go to judgments so quickly and we want to get to defend our view or correct the records and instead what you’re arguing for is for more curiosity, how is it that the person who’s that competent as a view that is so different from my own. And I try to live by the mantra that curiosity and judgment can’t coexist, and that curiosity is much more helpful when engaging with disagreement.
Julia and I also created a phrase that can help us all remember to use language that shows and signal receptiveness. So, we call it HEAR and that stands for hedge your claim, emphasize agreement, acknowledge others’ perspective, and reframing positive terms. And so in situations where you receive a statement or a view that you disagree with, I find it helpful to start with acknowledging the others’ perspectives. So really trying to start from a point of appreciation and say, “I appreciate that you have this different view. Here’s what I understand about it.” And then again, you can ask some questions to make sure that your understanding is in fact accurate.
ALISON BEARD: And so give me some examples of the language for the E, the A and the R.
JULIA MINSON: So the E is emphasizing agreement. So, it’s statements like, “I agree the last two years have been really hard on all of us,” or, “We both want our kids to return to normal as quickly as possible,” or, “We all think that it’s in the workplace, it’s important for everybody to feel safety and dignity,” right? So you could be-
ALISON BEARD: So finding the point of agreement?
JULIA MINSON: Right. And the interesting thing about finding a point of agreement that I think is really important to point out is that you’re not agreeing on the thing you’re disagreeing about. You’re not compromising. You’re not changing your mind. You’re not sort of abandoning your principles. You’re finding a broader set of values and convictions that can form common ground for the beginning of a conversation. What can all of us as humans agree on even when we happen to disagree about this particular very important thing?
FRANCESCA GINO: And even in the most desperate situation, I would say that that exists. We are both concerned with this project ending in a positive way, or we both want to make sure that the customers are happy with executing this service. And so there is always an opportunity to find that common ground that can help us move forward.
JULIA MINSON: The H stands for hedging your claims. So the idea is to use phrases like, “Sometimes, I feel that X, Y, Z,” or, “I’ve seen certain situations in which this has happened,” right? The idea is that instead of saying, “X causes Y,” you say, “I think that there’s some occasions on which X might cause Y.” And so what it does is it makes you sound a lot less dogmatic and a lot less preachy and overconfident. It’s sort of acknowledging the fact that, “Look, you don’t have 100% of the facts about 100% of all situations in the world.” And so it’s just much more humble in how you present the same argument.
ALISON BEARD: Let’s get to the A.
JULIA MINSON: The A stands for acknowledging your counterpart’s views. I think of acknowledgement as this act of generosity. We talked a few minutes ago about how when somebody disagrees with you, your first impulse is to refute their statements firmly and quickly. Acknowledgement essentially requires you to give up some of your own air time and say, “I understand you are saying that,” whatever they’re saying, or, “I hear you believe,” whatever they believe, or, “You just said that it’s really important to you,” something, something, something, right?
And the idea is that you have, instead of sort of charging into battle, you have taken a pause and use some of your own space to reiterate what this other person said. And part of the reason that acknowledgement is incredibly powerful, and part of the reason it’s powerful is because there is no way to fake listen when you’re doing acknowledgement. If you are acknowledging the other person’s perspective with your words, it by definition means that you actually heard their perspective.
FRANCESCA GINO: The R is reframing our ideas in positive terms. And so it’s rather than stating something that is negative, it’s using phrases like, “It would be so wonderful if,” or, “I think it’s really great when, “or, “I really appreciated when …” And so using positive language allows us to establish a tone that is much more constructive. And it’s very likely that we’ll find that the very person we are disagreeing with is going to reciprocate.
ALISON BEARD: And so what if you are a third party in the situation? You see two teammates butting heads, what’s the right move there? Can you still encourage them to use the hedging, the acknowledgement, the emphasizing agreement, the reframing? Can you insert yourself and do that?
JULIA MINSON: That’s a great question. And it actually is essentially what professional mediators do. So, one of the things that makes conversational receptiveness such a powerful intervention is that people naturally mimic each other’s language. So mimicry is a really sort of fundamental part of psychology, and conversational style is one of the many things we mimic about each other.
And so when one person sort of goes down the path of being kind of aggressive, that’s when the conversation spirals downward. Whereas if that person instead chooses to lead with receptiveness, their counterpart might mimic that behavior and then we see sort of these positive spirals. So a third party can essentially induce a positive spiral by modeling receptiveness, right? You’re not going to come in and say, “Hey guys, you’re being kind of mean to each other. Let me teach you an acronym,” but you can model the behavior by using conversational receptiveness yourself and sort of change the tone and the style of the conversation.
FRANCESCA GINO: And in fact, I can think of organizations that use that approach to bring together groups of people who don’t see eye to eye. The one that Julia and I studied in detail is Braver Angels. This is a nonpartisan organization that runs training and debates that are supposed to bring liberals and conservatives together to have civil dialogue. And they’ve been quite successful, I think, in relying on strategies that help people see commonalities, that help them acknowledge each other’s perspective. And so I find that taking that brokering or moderation type role even in conflicts at work can be really, really helpful.
ALISON BEARD: So, is your advice to team leaders and organizations as a whole to actually encourage employees to have these conversations, even when you’re not starting with conflict? It’s sort of like, we know that people here disagree, so let’s talk about vaccine policy. Let’s talk about Black Lives Matter, let’s talk about upcoming elections?
JULIA MINSON: Yes, absolutely. And I think partly the reason that having these conversations is important from a leadership perspective is that if you think they’re not happening, you’re in denial. Employees are talking about all of these issues. And most of the time, what they’re doing is they’re talking to people who agree with them and forming sort of factions and pockets of agreement. And those factions are then talking about the other people who disagree with them behind their backs in disparaging terms.
So as a leader, you’re much better off having a structured, facilitated civil conversation where all of this comes out into the open rather than letting the natural processes of instability take their course.
FRANCESCA GINO: In a context where the world is more complex, the problems that organizations are asked to think through, I think that we want to see more dialogue even on issues that might seem more personal such that people get to practice that muscle, get to practice with what it means to have more of a learning goal and more of an open mind when it comes to disagreement.
ALISON BEARD: And so when people learn to have these kind of productive disagreements around non-work issues, does that help them better handle the conflicts that arise about what’s going on with the job too?
JULIA MINSON: I think that conversational receptiveness is a skillset. And if you learn to speak French, you can speak French at home, you can speak French at work. So to the extent that you build up this habit of engaging in disagreement using this approach, you can deploy that habit in any conflictual situation. And in fact, I would advise people, this is what I advise my students when I teach negotiations to practice in low stakes situations. So, debate with your spouse about whether you’re getting Italian food or Chinese food for dinner and practice conversational receptiveness. And then when you’re really good at it, then you kind of raise the stakes to more profound issues or the workplace.
FRANCESCA GINO: I remember the co-founder of Pixar Animation Studios, Ed Catmull, who’s a leader I admire quite a bit. And he said, “There is no learning without debate.” But the truth is that it takes practice to turn disagreements into truly productive tensions. And so, as Julia said, I would take on every opportunity that we have in both our professional and personal lives to stop that instinct of going into defensiveness, of going into this mindset of, I’m going to prove you wrong or I’m going to fight you to show that I’m right, and instead practice being receptive.
ALISON BEARD: All right, let’s all do it. We’ll start tomorrow. Francesca, Julia, thank you so much for being with me today.
FRANCESCA GINO: It was such a pleasure. Thank you so much for having us.
JULIA MINSON: Thank you very much.
ALISON BEARD: That’s Julia Minson, an associate professor at Harvard Kennedy School, and Francesca Gino, a professor at Harvard Business School. Together they wrote the HBR article, Managing a Polarized Workforce: How to Foster Debate and Promote Trust. You can find it in the April-May 2022 issue of the HBR or at hbr.org.
If you enjoyed this conversation, you might also want to check out Episode 838, Why Company Should Stop Political Spending Now. This episode was produced by Mary Dooe. We get technical help from Rob Eckhardt. Ian Fox is our audio product manager. Thanks for listening to the HBR IdeaCast. I’m Alison Beard.