There are still nine months until Americans head to the polls to pick the next president, but—if the last presidential election season is any indication—there’s little doubt that politically focused, emotion-filled conflicts will bubble up long before Election Day. And experts say those political disagreements will spill into the workplace, which could pose a serious challenge for HR leaders.
“Even barely six weeks into 2024, it’s apparent that we are likely to experience an unprecedented—and that’s saying a lot, given recent history—threat against civil discourse in the public sphere and, by extension, in the workplace,” says Brad Smith, chief science officer at meQuilibrium (meQ), a workforce resilience platform provider.
That’s why preparing now is key for HR, adds Stephanie Neal, director of the Center for Analytics and Behavioral Research at Development Dimensions International, which helps organizations hire, promote and develop leaders globally.
“As political tensions deepen in the run-up to this year’s presidential election, companies can expect to see greater conflicts between employees,” Neal says.
She notes that HR’s strategy needs to be focused on building employee trust in leadership. It’s especially important now, as less than one-third of employees surveyed by DDI last year expressed confidence that senior leaders at their organization do “what’s right”—an alarming drop from previous years.
“Increased polarization,” Neal says, “tends to erode trust in institutions, so HR teams need to brace for another nosedive in workplace trust now as we approach the presidential election.”
As HR gears up for a divisive election year, it’s important to realize there’s no simple solution for looming workplace incivility, says Smith.
What HR needs to focus on instead—in addition to ensuring their organizations have explicit policies that prohibit the most egregious forms of incivility—is emotionally preparing the workforce. Smith explains that meQ’s research shows that incivility can be effectively countered by helping employees build emotion control and empathy, as well as fostering psychological safety across the organization.
First, it’s important for HR to get a baseline measurement to understand the current state of the organization. And, with Election Day not until November, that provides ample time for HR to dive into the data, Smith says.
“Before you begin to attack the problem, it’s essential to know the extent of the challenge you face,” he says. For example, employee sentiment can tell HR which functions in the organization are psychologically safe or where empathy may be stronger and weaker. “Knowing the landscape can help you surgically target interventions where they are most needed.”
Where improvements are needed, training on emotional intelligence can help employees understand and manage their emotions effectively.
Smith says one of the central tenets of meQ’s approach to resilience building is teaching people how to identify their “go-to” emotion—how to recognize it in the moment and replace it when it’s not helpful to your wellbeing.
“Understanding how our thoughts drive our emotions and behaviors can be transformative to changing the way we see and interact with others,” he says. “Encourage empathy by promoting understanding of different perspectives and experiences.”
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He says that leadership needs to actively promote psychological safety so that employees can feel empowered to share those differing views. Psychologically safe workplaces, Smith adds, are characterized by a feeling among employees that they can share their thoughts, opinions and ideas freely without fear of being degraded or shamed. While the term typically relates to employees feeling safe to share ideas about work, meQ’s research shows that the “climate of respect that it engenders has a powerful protective effect,” he says.
For instance, on teams with high degrees of reported psychological safety, according to meQ, employees are 60%-90% less likely than others to report uncivil behavior on their teams.
Create boundaries for healthy discussion
DDI’s Neal says that while it might be tempting to simply ban political talk at work, stifling employees’ expression won’t help rebuild trust in leadership. Instead, HR teams should help leaders set boundaries for healthy discussion, encouraging employees to be curious and ask open-ended questions.
“Above all, show mutual respect,” she explains. “With that said, it’s critical HR teams immediately acknowledge and respond to any inappropriate statements.”
While addressing incivility head-on is key, DDI’s research shows that listening and responding with empathy are the most impactful behaviors leaders can take to strengthen employees’ trust. But many leaders get empathy wrong, conflating it with “agreement.”
“You don’t need to agree with someone’s perspective to express empathy—rather, empathy is about acknowledging what the other person is feeling,” Neal says. To foster empathy among leaders, HR can coach them on practicing active listening, including naming what the other person is experiencing. Then, they feel heard, providing them with an outside perspective to deepen their understanding.
“After this acknowledgment, it’s important to steer the conversation to collaborating on a solution and channeling these feelings toward a productive outcome,” Neal says.
In the lead-up to Election Day, HR must proactively address pain points before they develop, adds Jocelyn Moyet, a licensed mental health counselor at Grow Therapy, which connects patients with therapists and prescribers nationwide.
“In a perfect world, you can stop conflict before it starts,” she says, noting that, more realistically, boundaries set ahead of time can prove helpful. “This could look like sending out a group [message] or speaking individually to the people who tend to instigate and stir the pot. They may not always be receptive, but it’s worth trying.”
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