Overcoming Differing Political Opinions in the International Workplace

Finding the Decisive in the Divisive: How to Overcome Differing Political Opinions in the International Workplace

We currently work in some of the most diverse and international workplaces, maybe ever. Freedom of movement in the EU allows people from 28 (soon to be 27) different countries to go and work where they please. Offices housing multinational corporations attract workers from around the globe. 

There are 17 million mobile EU citizens, which means you’re going to have to go far out of your way to avoid interacting with someone from another country. It also means that you’re going to have to get used to different political views. But how do we overcome differing political opinions in the international workplace in a world where social media and push notifications keep politics at the forefront of our minds all day?

The answer isn’t to ban political speech at work or to practice avoidance. If we want to work together to fight off threats like global health crises, we’re going to need to develop the trust required to tackle our differences head-on.

Finding a Path Forward is Vital

To some people, politics is just that — politics. It’s something to debate on the internet or talk about at dinner parties when all other subjects run dry. But for many, politics is more than a cache of ideas: it profoundly impacts their lives in ways that are not only tangible but increasingly visceral. It’s life and death. It assigns personhood and ‘other.’ It’s real, and it not only makes political conversations friable but it can erode trust in the workplace.

Trust is an essential component of any relationship, and that includes workplace relationships. Employees need to trust in their leaders and their organizations, but they also need to trust each other.

High levels of trust in workplace relationships bolster morale among employees and improve productivity. It’s much easier to get things done if you don’t have to worry about whether or not a team member is out to get you or if you’re not upset by office drama and politics. What’s more, employees connect their feelings about the workplace to leadership, which means their feelings about their workday deeply reflect their organizational commitment.

But in a world where politics is alive and people want to freely share their ideas, how do you protect both your workers and your work culture?

Understanding the Role of Fear in Politics

To learn to navigate the injection of national and global politics into the office, it’s important to understand that politics aren’t just intellectual. They’re emotional, and the role of fear is particularly potent. As Corey Robin writes in his article for the New Republic, fear is both a moral and rational emotion both in the political arena and outside of it. It also contributes to political decision making, and it’s what can cause discussions to quickly turn into heated, fraught debates.

The gun debate is one clear-cut example of how fear informs. Those who work for American organizations are likely to encounter fellow citizens of all political backgrounds, including those who support the right to bear arms, whatever those arms may be. Guns are a political issue, but they are also a public health issue: gun-related injuries and deaths are growing in the United States and now occur more frequently than fatal car accidents.

On one hand, a fear of gun violence pushes many non-gun owners and those from countries where gun ownership is low to believe that bans are the only answer to the gun problem. Those who are against gun control argue that they are motivated by the fear of being unarmed (though, some scientific evidence suggests gun owners have fewer phobias than non-gun owners). The idea that one side is right and the other side’s fear is invalid is what inflames these conversations. Fear is both rational and emotional: fear itself isn’t wrong. In fact, fear is an opportunity.

Why Diversity is So Important for Understanding

It’s easy to look at how desperate some political conversations are and want to ban politics at work. But experts say you shouldn’t do that because it’s hard on your interpersonal relationships. What’s more, the fears that people have and how they contribute to their political opinions open up a doorway for understanding. It allows us to go beyond ‘he has a dumb opinion’ or ‘she is a bad person’ and looks at the motivation behind the opinion or belief. Being able to do that allows us to tease out a more diverse workplace, and organizations benefit from more diversity in many ways.

When we have more diverse workplaces, we’re better able to better understand the people we work with not just as political beings but as human beings. It’s also an opportunity for both partners to practice radical empathy for each other, which builds trust even in the face of conflicting ideas. The people in the conversation can move beyond being combatants and to find a common cause or a common solution.

These are important skills, particularly as we face emergencies like the next pandemic, which tend to produce fear in people. Different people have different beliefs about public health, but discussions about fears can produce helpful solutions, like running a handwashing program or promoting other wellness activities. Neither of these solutions will curb a global health epidemic, but they will provide your team with a sense of control, which can help abate the fears driving their political commentaries. 

A Few Simple Rules for Keeping It Civil at Work

“Civility” is a topic that’s constantly under fire: some wonder where it went, and those who have experienced oppression say it was never there at all. Even still, there are some things that we can do to keep our workplaces safer without outright banning political speech.

The first is to encourage people to stay off social media during work hours. Don’t ban social media: all-out bans suggest that you don’t trust your employees to regulate themselves and are bad for morale. Instead, remind employees that constant exposure to politics via social media is generally bad for our mental health and that unplugging can help everyone calm down for their own good — and to keep office politics talk at a minimum. If they want to look at social media, encourage them to head somewhere that won’t make them more anxious. Why not keep a folder of funny cat videos available for a Slack bot to pull up?

It might also be helpful to provide classes or programs that support the office culture you want. For example, you might provide a seminar in empathy, active listening, or another soft skill that’s not only valuable for the human experience but also subtly hints at how you would prefer your team to respond to political conversations that aren’t in line with their beliefs or that they find stressful and prefer to exit.

Ultimately, we work in an increasingly global world, and there will always be challenges associated with that. But there’s a huge amount of opportunity, and we can’t embrace those chances for growth by trying to ban any discussion of our differences. We may be from different places and have different experiences, but these are our strengths as people. So let’s find ways to make the most of them where we can, even at work.