Keep These Things in Mind Before Talking Politics at Work

Workers themselves can gear up mentally to make workplace political discussions actually productive, or at the very least civil.

Over the last several years, more and more Americans have come to view their political opponents as bad people. That’s the disconcerting recent finding from the Pew Research Center. In 2016, 47 percent of Republicans thought Democrats were more immoral than other Americans. In its August 2022 report, Pew found that that number grew to 72 percent. Unsurprisingly, Democrats feel the same about Republicans—63 percent of them now think Republicans are more immoral than other Americans, up from 35 percent in 2016. It’s the same story for both political tribes when they think about their opponents’ levels of intelligence, dishonesty, and closed-mindedness. Each side increasingly sees the other as evil and stupid. And who wants to compromise, or even respectfully disagree with, an evil and stupid person? When that’s how you perceive who you’re dealing with—at family gatherings, at school, on social media, or at work—it can be easy to bask in the moral and intellectual high ground. 

“These trends can undercut critical social support systems and amplify real-world echo chambers where people become increasingly isolated or segregated from others,” researchers wrote in a new paper in Nature Human Behavior. “Additionally, perceiving high levels of partisan animosity can strain our social fabric, triggering institutional, governmental and general social distrust.”

When in a political disagreement with someone, it is all too easy to make assumptions about their beliefs and intentions.

We’re seeing the effects of this mindset creep into, and sometimes blow up in, the workplace. The MIT Sloan Management Review discussed this in a March 2022 essay titled, “Politics in the Workplace: How Can Managers Keep the Peace?” It mentions the case of Basecamp—something like a third of the workforce left the company in the wake of a crackdown on open political discussion. Employees have a growing expectation of bringing their full selves into work, which means there’s more opportunity for unproductive ideological conflict. In terms of the workplace environment and culture, that can be quite damaging. That article offers a top-down approach to this challenge—steps bosses can take to foster more civil discussions—but the effort needn’t be one-sided. Employees themselves can mitigate the personal consequences of workplace polarization. While leaders certainly have their place in managing workplace relationships and making sure everything runs smoothly, employees can take some initiative to deal with the issue at the source, preventatively. Workers themselves can gear up mentally to make workplace political discussions actually productive, or at the very least civil.

It’s useful to know, for example, that increased polarization, or even the perception of increased polarization (more on that later), can create hostility between coworkers, lead to employees hiding their beliefs, and lower job satisfaction. Research also suggests that, despite stable levels of actual polarization, affective polarization—the level of animosity between opposing parties—is increasing. The potential for increased animosity in the workplace is both bad for business and detrimental to employees themselves. But employees can help mitigate the worst effects of polarizing conflict by keeping the following ideas in mind.

  1. Recognize that we live in a confusing society

We have an overabundance of information at our fingertips. At least a part of the news’ job is to help us sort through and understand the important things happening in the world. But, in a politically polarized media landscape, news organizations tend to cover events through a biased lens, which can sometimes mean, intentional or not, the spreading of misinformation, particularly in social media. That can be disorienting for someone who just wants to get clear on the basic facts. People, however, are inclined to believe what others in their social circles more or less accept. From family and friends to coworkers, to people we may respect and follow on social media, there are countless people whose opinions and ideas shape what and how we think. A person may end up, as a result of being constantly exposed to faulty, biased, and warped information, believing some things that may seem thoughtless or illogical.

The first step in having a more agreeable disagreement is to recognize the numerous obstacles to knowledge and learning that we face every day. In a world where information seems rarely unbiased, people can end up thinking some radically different things from one another. Keeping in mind that what a person is surrounded by deeply influences them—and that even you, were you to be placed into a different situation, could be influenced by beliefs you currently oppose—could go a long way to helping you empathize, or at least be more patient, when facing opposing beliefs.

  1. Appreciate that people have different moral structures

In The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt explains that morality is like taste—what each person feels and values is somewhat unique to them, and there is more than one valid framework. Moral Foundations Theory, first proposed by Haidt, Craig Joseph, and Jesse Graham, describes six psychological foundations of morality: Care/Harm, Fairness/Cheating, Loyalty/Betrayal, Authority/Subversion, Sanctity/Degradation, and Liberty/Oppression. The idea is that everyone values each of these foundations to some degree, the unique mix of which forms their morality. Our preferences for each of the foundations are informed by both our genes and lived experience

The moral foundation of liberals tends to emphasize the Care, Liberty, and Fairness foundations—although they are often willing to sacrifice fairness when it conflicts with compassion. The conservative moral orientation, on the other hand, tends to consist of a more equal emphasis on all six of the foundations—although they are more willing to sacrifice Care in pursuit of the other five foundations than liberals are. Subtle differences in the way that we emphasize some foundations over others (and even define the foundations; e.g. equality vs. proportionality in fairness) can lead to major differences in socio-political views. What’s more, people who grow up in WEIRD (Western, educated, industrial, rich, and democratic) societies are statistical outliers when it comes to morality. These people focus on the ethic of autonomy—moral concerns about individuals harming, oppressing, or cheating other individuals.

No one mix is “correct.” Morality varies greatly between cultures and even more so between socio-economic classes (e.g., education level). For this reason, it is helpful during times of disagreement to try to understand or at least acknowledge that an opposing view might have some validity though you may disagree with it. Haidt notes that morality “binds and blinds,” in that it binds like-minded people together and blinds people to the rationality of other moralities, making it difficult for people to be open to the idea that there could be more than one morality. Recognizing this idea leaves more space for understanding during disagreement.

  1. Beware of “Us vs. Them” thinking

More and more it seems that people today are basing their sense of self on their political beliefs and affiliations. As a result of this tendency, we are seeing an uptick in tribalism across politics and morality—a clustering of people into competing groups, often in what is viewed as a zero-sum game, and in which compromise with the other side is equated with betrayal. This phenomenon spurs polarization and drives an even bigger wedge between groups due to “Us vs. Them” ways of thinking. With this common-enemy approach, the in-group emphasizes group distinctions and unifies against the out-group—it easily binds and blinds us. Any distinction that is made between an in-group and an out-group, even one based on trivial characteristics, can trigger negative attributions toward the out-group. 

We should instead strive to think through conflict with a common-identity, or common-humanity, approach. It appeals to universal values, highlighting what brings us—as a human race—together rather than what sets groups of us apart. By taking a common-identity approach to the way that you think and communicate, you can begin to form empathy and understanding between groups, leading to greater cooperation and less contention.

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  1. Don’t dismiss the other side—you have more in common than you think

A big issue that comes up when dealing with conflict or disagreement is the tendency for each side to flippantly dismiss the other’s ideas. This happens for many reasons. People tend to make “straw man” arguments, a way of exaggerating or otherwise weakening someone’s case, and challenging that instead of their true position. When in a political disagreement with someone, it is all too easy to make assumptions about their beliefs and intentions. This, among other factors, is a cause of the false polarization bias—members of opposing political groups tend to overestimate the level of disagreement between each other, the prevalence of radical beliefs in the opposing group, and how negatively they are viewed by the opposing group.

In reality, people are not getting more ideologically polarized, the proportions of party affiliation have remained relatively stable over the past two decades; the level of affective polarization is what’s growing. With this in mind, it would be prudent to take a step back during disagreement and acknowledge that the person you are arguing with is not part of a monolith, but rather a complex person with whom you actually might share things in common. 

What else causes a dismissive attitude toward opposing arguments is that people often resort to one of three argumentative modes. Adam Grant discusses these modes in his book Think Again—preacher, prosecutor, or politician. In these modes, we are more focused on relentlessly arguing our side while disparaging the opposition rather than having meaningful and productive conversations. In preacher mode, we deliver sermons to protect and promote our ideals; in prosecutor mode, we argue diligently to win our case; and in politician mode, we campaign for the approval of our audience. What Grant suggests instead is scientist mode, in which you are seeking truth, listening to new evidence, considering it critically, and rethinking your own ideas accordingly. 

Evidence suggests that one of the best ways to be more considerate of others’ ideas is getting—rather than taking—perspective from the other person. This means talking and listening to the person in order to get insights into their nuanced views, rather than trying to imagine what their situation is like, which is prone to distortion from biases. When personal connections are made (such as when you talk about and listen to each other’s views), people are much more likely to be respectful and understanding during disagreements. Disagreements can become fruitful rather than contentious.

  1. Follow the principle of charity 

The principle of charity posits that we should interpret a speaker’s statements in the most generous way possible. This is essentially the opposite of the straw man fallacy—rather than distorting a speaker’s argument into an oversimplified extreme, you respond to the best version of the argument they’re making for their position. This is sometimes called “steel-manning” someone’s view. 

What can quickly lead to the escalation of a disagreement into an unproductive argument is misunderstanding and misrepresenting the arguments of a speaker. When this happens, tensions rise, both parties feel misunderstood and slighted, and the goal becomes to win the argument for argument’s sake rather than seeking truth and understanding. What’s worse, even if you end up “winning” the argument in this way, you’ve merely argued against a point that was never made in the first place—no real progress is made. The principle of charity requires patience, an open mind, and curiosity. You must be willing to allow your colleagues grace and leeway, when mistakes are made, to clarify and seek understanding. This goes hand in hand with getting perspective. By doing so, you allow the other person the space to speak truthfully and honestly, each person feels heard and understood, and the chances of tensions rising due to misunderstandings fall.

The way that we frame the kind of interaction that’s about to happen can either result in a contentious argument or a fruitful learning opportunity. Research shows that simply framing a dispute as a discussion rather than an argument signals to both parties that the interaction is an open and receptive one, motivating each party to share and take in more information—there is a common goal of learning. While arguments can feel personal and hostile, discussions are meant to be about the sharing of ideas and trying to reach understanding. 

By keeping these principles in mind, employees can feel more assured of how to handle a potentially tense political conversation—and help steer it toward an interaction that fosters a culture of camaraderie and understanding. Since the workplace is increasingly one of the only places that one can expect to regularly face people with opposing views, it is important that employees learn to communicate productively with and learn from each other. The positive effects of such an approach can have benefits extending beyond the workplace, helping us become better at engaging with diverse opinions and perspectives in other aspects of our lives.

Mitchell Simoes is an undergraduate studying Business and Psychology at NYU and was raised in Miami, Florida.