We all know the merits of diverse and inclusive workplaces. A rich mix of people from different backgrounds, experiences and ages brings a blend of perspectives that drives innovation and creativity.

However, it is also important to be aware of the heightened risk of a conflict of thought, which moves beyond something productive to something down right ugly without careful management.

Worldwide events and movements, such as the recent US election, the handling of the coronavirus pandemic and even Black Lives Matter, inevitably spill out of our personal social media feeds and into the workplace where there may be potentially polarizing viewpoints within your team members.

Passions can run high; I’ve heard stories of co-workers almost coming to physical blows following the result of the 2016 Brexit referendum and this hot topic is likely to become even more contentious as the UK prepares to leave the EU at the end of this year.

What’s the problem?

Unacceptable threats of physical violence aside, what is the problem with people having opposing views, I hear you say?

Absolutely nothing! After all, progress depends on disagreement, but it’s vitally important to consider how to handle the discussion of such topics in the workplace. If mismanaged, it could lead to a crippling, divisive atmosphere that ultimately may make some team members feel like they don’t belong and incite them to leave. Unchecked, strong disagreement may also be used as a veil for harassment and bullying.

Further, from an external perspective, employees who publicly tout polarizing opinions – inside and outside of work – may attract the attention of potential clients who could be put off from working with you, placing your company’s reputation at risk.

How should I handle this?

Here are some top tips for how you can acknowledge what’s taking place in the world around you and encourage open dialogue without risking the cohesion of your team or culture:

Make some ground rules

Many companies set ground rules on making overtly political statements at work. For example, some prohibit the wearing of political clothing (think ‘Make America Great Again’) or bringing in campaign material. The same goes for discussing political leanings in emails to co-workers. Some policies also incorporate guidelines on how employees should behave on their own social media pages so as not to bring their employers into disrepute.

It is important to note that this isn’t about policing people’s thoughts or opinions, it is about ensuring your people do not force their beliefs on one another or victimise those who do not share a certain opinion.

Set an example

The actions of leaders greatly influence whether a person feels like they belong. Openly stating support or opposition in relation to an event, like an election, may make some employees feel intimidated or worried they will be treated differently if they disagree. Managers should therefore carefully consider which topics or movements they should publicly comment on.

Show respect

Treating everyone with respect is the cornerstone of an inclusive workplace; it’s one of the ways you can help make people feel valued. Through instilling this as a key workplace value for everyone, not just leaders, will help encourage all to politely consider each other’s opinions and reduce incidents of harassment. Training and clear policies on dignity at work and what constitutes harassment and bullying should already be a staple of your workplace.

Have brave conversations

Training can also provide a safe space for people to share their perspectives on issues based on their own lived experiences. This can help broaden understanding among co-workers and help build empathy within teams. These are often brave conversations that need to be handled sensitively, but don’t shy away from them. Remember, it’s ok for people to have different views and beliefs as this is part and parcel of an inclusive workplace.

Check your biases

We are all a product of our backgrounds and experiences, which naturally influence our views on major events. Examine these biases and your own privileges to make sure they are not causing you to draw a line under certain types of speech or opinions within your team, and educate yourself on the history and context of events taking place to increase awareness and broaden your perspective.

If you’re looking for further guidance on how to overcome ideological disagreements in your workplace, Tell Jane can support you in implementing an effective strategy. Contact me by emailing lisa@telljane.co.uk to get started.

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