Remember the good old days when you could log onto Facebook or have a conversation at the office water cooler without engaging in a political debate?
There have been any number of reports lately about these debates creeping into the workplace and proving to be a major distraction and a drag on employee productivity.
Federal career employees involved with leadership programs at my organization, the Partnership for Public Service, have been asking in recent months about the best strategies for preventing or defusing the tension they see popping up in the office. Some of the discussions have become very personal, they said, and have created discord.
Given the volatile nature of these conversations, I decided to seek some practical help from an expert on the topic of civility in the workplace -- Christine Porath, an associate professor at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business and author of a recently published book titled "Mastering Civility: A Manifesto for the Workplace."
Porath has studied workplace civility for more than 20 years and has ideas on how federal leaders can remain focused on achieving their program goals and ultimately delivering meaningful results for American taxpayers.
First, she recommends setting the right tone. Take proactive steps to establish ground rules -- or operating norms as they are often called -- that outline how teammates should work effectively with one another. This involves promoting a civil dialogue and keeping partisanship out of the process -- bringing people together to wrestle through some difficult issues and doing so by listening to differing viewpoints.
Civility does not necessarily mean agreement, but it does mean that employees and leaders will listen to and treat each other with respect.
Of course, political differences may be hard to control, and in that case, you'll need to defuse these situations pretty quickly.
According to Porath, it's important to acknowledge the real differences of opinion in the office and in our country today. Don't pretend that these strong views don't exist. Let your employees know that if they need the time and space to share something personal, you will talk with them and do your best to address any concerns.
From there, focus your team on shared goals, the work they need to perform and the results they should be delivering. While there may be some lingering discomfort, employees will appreciate your acknowledgment and acceptance of the differing views and the tensions, and that you are focused on helping the team concentrate on the work that needs to be done.
Porath's research has found that -- more than anything -- employees are looking for respect and an understanding of how they feel.
A leader can demonstrate respect by listening intently, reinforcing the ground rules needed for the team to work together effectively and being ready to meet with employees as needed to help them keep moving forward. It may seem like a real commitment of time, but it will pay dividends for your entire team if they are better able to concentrate on their jobs as opposed to the simmering tensions.
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Tom Fox is the vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service.