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Leading in Highly Divisive Times


People avoid politics and religion for good reasons. The conversation rarely ends up turning out the way we want, and it has the potential to change the dynamics of a long-term relationship in a matter of minutes. As we move through things like elections, there is a strong likelihood we will be working with, reporting to, or leading people with whom we fundamentally disagree. Sure, we can agree to disagree, but how we negotiate that slippery slope has implications for our overall effectiveness as a leader.   

We may have been told to “leave our emotions at the door” when we used to work in actual workplaces and could bring things in from the outside. Now, home is where many of us work and work is no longer a place, so the lines have been blurred. Maintaining political distancing was easier when you didn’t know that your coworker voted for Biden or your direct report was a Trump fan. With emotions running so high and social media so broad, it is much more difficult to avoid knowing a lot more about your colleague. And in the United States, given the election results, you have about a 50/50 chance that your fellow workers feel very differently than you about the U.S. election. Yet you will still need to lead, even when there is a clear line of division.   

For the most part, this sage advice holds true about avoiding politics and religion, except when it doesn’t, and things begin to spill over into your Zoom meetings because you happened to see a political sign in your peer’s office or perhaps members of your team asked to take time off to help a particular candidate win their local or federal race. The more we know, the more it seeps into our relationships.   

You don’t always get the choice to decide who you get to lead — although your people get to choose whether to follow you every day. The choice to enter into discussions about people’s personal lives and choices is becoming less and less optional as we continue to work out of the homes of our workforces and as our workforces get more comfortable sharing their opinions and expectations of us as leaders.   

The New Work Exchange

This election, which already was on track to be very polarized, turned out to be even more complicated due to the pandemic. The humanitarian, economic, and biological crisis, the social unrest, as well as the arrival of the “New Work Exchange” have contributed to raising the stakes even higher.   

It’s no secret that emotions are high. And while the rule to not discuss politics or religion is a good reminder of how to maintain peaceful interactions, the fact is that this election has become more than a topic to avoid discussing. It is an intrinsic barometer of alignment that people have, or don’t have with one another, including the places they work and the people with whom they work. And yes, it is also an evaluation of you as a leader to assess if your values are aligned with those you are leading. And just as in politics, you are likely to have some people very happy with your views and some who aren’t.  

This value-heavy work exchange is fueled by the concept of New Work, which we had seen arriving for a few years, but is now here to stay. New Work encompasses the rewards elements — other than salary — quickly increasing in perceived value among employees and influencing their decisions whether to accept or stay in certain job opportunities. It is guided by the value people place on things like well-being, flexibility, non-traditional benefits, leadership, purpose and meaning, culture and belonging. And yes, people want to be led by people who have similar values.   

Among these considerations is alignment to the organization’s purpose and values. In a “Talent Currency Study” conducted by WorldatWork in August 2020, 67% of 296 full-time employee respondents indicated that it is extremely or very important to work for a leader with similar social beliefs, while only 7% said they view it as not at all important.

So, can you reasonably expect to lead someone in the New Work Exchange, especially in such a highly politicized environment? This question isn’t if; it is how?    

We need to learn to lead through division — whether it is caused by a team member, customer, or even the department leader. We can create highly productive teams even when team members hold opposing views. And there is literally no better time to practice this skill given all that has happened and will happen in 2020 and beyond. Plus, getting good at leading while divided will prepare you for the pending Thanksgiving Day family meal, even if virtual, when Uncle Mark has one too many cocktails and shares his thoughts on the election, which triggers the rest of the family to dive into the fun.   

Managing Divergence in Thought 

First and foremost, you need to lead. If you find yourself getting pulled into conversations or situations where people are defensive and upset, you weren’t leading, you were watching. Regardless of people’s beliefs and opinions, many things connect them, and as a leader, your ability to sort that out is critical. Diversity of opinion and thought is inherently a good thing, so you can use your role as a leader to protect the differences but manage through them to find the better path forward. 

Likely more important to your leadership is your ability to lead people who don’t think like you or even like you all that much. Respecting people for who they are and championing their right to believe what they believe is much more powerful than trying to silence people — even when it comes to religion and politics.   

Having conversations and expressing differences can be difficult, but it shouldn’t ruin relationships if managed appropriately. Focusing on your organizational core values and making sure you have clear guidelines of what is expected as part of the work-value exchange will become a focal point in how you lead through division. We can help our organization and employees navigate these highly divisive times by focusing on the issues as well as the impacts these issues may have on our collective business outcomes.

"Respecting people for who they are and championing their right to believe what they believe is much more powerful than trying to silence people — even when it comes to religion and politics." – Scott Cawood, CEO of WorldatWork

Once you get into personal attributes of each presidential candidate, you’ve likely gone too far. Pull the conversations back to the shared reasons to discuss this (which is not to persuade them to think like you) and the business ramifications and leave the personal jabs about candidates for the Turkey Day celebration. As we do this, it is important to set clear behavioral expectations in the workplace that connect directly to your organizational core values. For example, it is OK to have a political discussion. It is not OK to have an inappropriate discussion that shuts people down.  

At the same time, understanding that everyone may be in a different place and going through different emotions during these times will be crucial to sustaining high-performance teams. The months preceding the election have been stressful and have fueled division in many ways. These next few weeks are not going to be any different. We should expect anxiety on many levels within our teams. And this will be another opportunity to lead, and possibly follow through a divisive moment in time.   

Our teams will need our support to prepare mentally and physically for the days ahead. You are going to have to lead through the division whether you have a desire to “go there” or not. We will continue to see a spectrum of reactions, including potentially more protests and more celebrations regardless of when a new U.S. president is officially recognized by all 50 states. 

As leaders, we can help our teams through this stressful and contentious period by recognizing that people may not be able to focus and engage as much as usual. They may need to chat about what is going on, and as their leader, you can help facilitate that discussion regardless of which side of the aisle you reside.   

Remember, New Work Exchange is more human, valued-laden, socially aware, and very transparent. With that in mind, the human leader needs to balance the business leader as we navigate through current and future moments of division. Managing divergence in thought and differences of opinion can help us see things we are missing. We know we are not only stronger together; we are better together, and we can maximize this moment by being a leader to everyone, even if they voted for the other team.    

About the Author

Scott Cawood Bio Image

Scott Cawood, Ed.D, CCP, CBP, GRP, CSCP, WLCP is the CEO of WorldatWork.

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