In the United Kingdom, most people don’t feel comfortable bringing their whole selves to work. For two-thirds of the population, talking politics sincerely, on the job, is uncomfortable. People who hold certain, commonplace views, stay silent believing that expressing those views will carry penalty not reward. These are among the findings of a study developed by Cambridge University’s Political Psychology Lab, YouGov, and organizations both of us belong to—MHP Communications (Barron) and The Depolarization Project (Goldsworthy). Our aim is to understand the impact of polarization on British society and help communicators to play a leading role in depolarizing it.
The evidence from this survey suggests that polarization is limiting viewpoint diversity within U.K. organizations. Why does this matter? It has been shown that viewpoint diversity improves decision making, encourages innovation, and bolsters financial performance. Yet political diversity is often excluded from drives to extend inclusion, if it is even considered at all.
When it comes to speaking their minds at work, one of these tribes—home of the “Progressive Activist”—is not like the others.
Polarization encourages people to see issues in Manichaean terms and increases the likelihood that colleagues will seek to discriminate—often subconsciously—against their outgroup. People often apply labels to others based on proxies, from the food people eat, to the clothes they wear. Polarized organizations can become more resistant to listening to critical feedback—treating dissenting views as a challenge to their authority, and are also more likely to discriminate on the grounds of politics during recruitment processes, creating a self-perpetuating problem.
Evidence now suggests that in some situations discrimination on the basis of political views is greater than on race. Managers have not yet worked out how to intervene in political disputes between employees and there is a risk their responses could be ineffective or counterproductive. Our data found marked differences between generations in terms of their core beliefs. Younger and older people profoundly disagree on questions such as the role of the nuclear family and whether our nation’s history is something to be proud of. An inclusive workplace ought to accommodate and challenge every generation. Naturally, political moderates may find a highly politicized workplace off-putting. This could accelerate further polarization and risk the organization becoming disconnected from the views of a large part of the population.
Only nine percent of the British adults we surveyed described politics as “very important” to their sense of identity, and only 22 percent had shared any political content on their social channels in the previous year. Similarly, 62 percent of adults told us that journalism was “too political,” while 44 percent said the same of TV entertainment. Polarization has left the majority of people exhausted by politics.
If politics is a minority sport, there is, however, one group that loves to play it. And the data suggests that they will play an outsize role in shaping debate. Research group More in Common has produced a psychographic model of Britain (similar to its Hidden Tribes of America report), based on seven tribes defined by shared worldviews.
For our study, we segmented our audience polling based on this model. We found that, when it comes to speaking their minds at work, one of these tribes—home of the “Progressive Activist”—is not like the others.
“A powerful and vocal group for whom politics is at the core of their identity,” as More in Common describes them. “They seek to correct the historic marginalization of groups. Politically engaged, critical, opinionated, frustrated, cosmopolitan and environmentally conscious.” This tribe represents 13 percent of the population and is far more likely to feel confident expressing political views in the workplace than any other group (51 percent versus a national average of 37 percent) and far more likely to say politics is “very important” to their identity (21 percent versus a 9 percent national average).
Perhaps most importantly for managers, this group is significantly more likely to organize with other colleagues to protest in the event that their employer does something they “strongly object to” (52 percent, compared to a national average of 32 percent) or informally criticize the company to friends and colleagues (44 percent, compared to a national average 23 percent).
No surprise, then, that “progressive activists” have a higher propensity to express their political views among friends and colleagues and online—58 percent have shared political content on social media in the last 12 months, compared to a 22 percent national average. Sixteen percent have tried to have something banned, versus a seven percent national average. They have a stronger preference for hearing their own views reflected back at them—44 percent are likely to say that their friends share their same political views, compared to a 19 percent national average. And they have views that diverge from majority public opinion on a wide range of social issues—from capitalism and diversity.
While the passion of these employees can be energizing and help to drive positive change, it can also drown out other perspectives and lead companies to lose sight of what matters to their customers. Many companies we work for, particularly those based in London, find themselves caught between appeasing their workforce and serving the people who buy their products—audiences who often have very different core values.
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And yet, despite winning a landslide victory in 2019’s General Election, British Conservative voters are nine points more reticent to say what they believe than Labour voters. Why does the larger group fear judgement more than the smaller group?
One possible explanation is that political victory is a poisoned chalice. The winning team is forced to “own” the consequences of their choices in a way that the losing team is not. Losing in itself is not generally enjoyable either. But the data points to much more than this: Differences in perceived economic and social penalties also play a part.
Attitudes toward cancel culture among Conservative and Labour-voting groups widely diverge. We asked whether it is “fair or unfair for people who say grossly offensive things to be at risk of losing their livelihoods?” Nationally, 48 percent believe it is “fair,” but this figure rises to 65 percent for social democrat-aligned Labour voters, compared with 39 percent for right-leaning Conservative voters.
This difference is not merely hypothetical. Cultural matters that are important to right-wing voters are perceived as being cancelled at a faster rate than left-wing cultural matters. We asked people, “In the last few years, has something or someone you like been banned, withdrawn or cancelled due to public pressure?” Conservatives were 61 percent more likely than Labour voters to say yes. This may reflect a generational “rebalancing” of how we tell stories and celebrate our history, but nonetheless, they perceive that their ideas are under threat.
Right-wing employees might reasonably conclude that their views are more likely to get them fired. Even if this fear is exaggerated—and the evidence it exists is less clear than the perception it might—the chilling effect is real. Employees believe they work in a Panopticon. Conservative and Leavers (those who voted for Brexit in the 2016 referendum) are also more disliked and more likely to be described in unflattering terms than Labour and Remain voters, than the other way around. While each group was more favorable to those that shared their views, nuance beneath showed that those who had been on the losing side were less positive.
Our polling found that while the most popular word selected, from a list of nine, by Conservatives to describe people “with strongly different political views to my own” was “honest” (39 percent), the most popular among Labour voters was “closed minded” (28 percent). Labour voters are also more likely to maintain friendship groups that exclude people with other views: 33 percent of Labour voters believe they “share the same political views as my close friends on the majority of things” compared with 13 percent of Conservatives.
The pandemic and its economic fallout are likely to amplify this trend, of British employers having to contend with a minority of highly-vocal and activist employees who contribute toward an environment in which other viewpoints are less likely to be expressed. Uncertainty makes us cling to our groups, and almost inevitably we become more wary of an out-group, while digital networks (including internal platforms) encourage groupish behaviors.
However, organizations can depolarize. Leaders and communicators can influence this process by creating a sense of common purpose, firmly rooted in a clear and reassuring view of the future, in which everyone understands the role they have to play and all voices are listened to, even if they don’t feel confident about speaking up.
Nick Barron is a corporate reputation strategist, who specializes in helping companies define what they stand for and building campaigns that change the conversation. He is head of MHP’s Networked Age research program and his clients include Coca-Cola, Syngenta, and beIN Media Group.
Ali Goldsworthy is the Founder and CEO of The Depolarization Project. She has spent more than 20 years active in politics and campaigning. She is co-author of Poles Apart, which will be released with Penguin Random House later this year.
Lead image: Kat Jayne from Pexels.