Rage. Rancor. Resentment. Disgust. Celebration. Defiant. Fervent. Partisan.
These words, and others like them, have dominated news reports in the U.S. over the last few weeks. Just when we thought the country could not feel more divided than it was leading up to and after the 2016 U.S. presidential election, recent events surrounding Supreme Court Justice Kavanaugh’s hearings demonstrate that emotions – and strongly emotional responses – continue to escalate in nearly every forum from dinner tables to not-so-friendly conversations among friends to classrooms to workplaces. And with mid-term elections one month off, the tenor of public and private discourse is likely to become even more fraught.
These are risky times for leaders and managers committed to engaging workers in a shared strategy for their organizations. We know that among the most critical skills engaging leaders demonstrate is active listening. But how – and where – to draw the line between encouraging open dialogue and providing a cover for divisive behavior (especially covert, masked behavior) is a major challenge.
These three actions will help CEOs and senior leaders build trust and keep at-work relationships productive during volatile times.
- Name the elephant in the room. Acknowledge that these are trying times for many, with extremely strong emotions having been stirred across the political and personal spectrum.
- Establish clear expectations – and boundaries. Remind employees that diverse opinions and perspectives are critical to solving business problems and innovating new ideas, products and services. And on the flipside, personal opinions and perspectives on divisive issues simply do not belong in the workplace. Encourage workers who have personal concerns about workplace practices or actions to take them promptly and directly to a designated resource, such as their Human Resources professional or an Employee Assistance Program advocate.
- Recommit to the dignity of every individual. This is one example of where “say-do” is sacrosanct. We often talk about respect in the workplace, and many companies include that word in their values statements. That’s good. Now scan the way you carry yourself, the way you interact with colleagues at all levels – the words you choose and your body language. Make sure that you are “doing” respect as much as you are talking about it. Whether or not they realize it, employees are watching you for cues about what is acceptable behavior. If you are a senior leader, you are used to living in a fishbowl. Recognize that this is truer now than ever.
For more on communicating during divisive times, check out this article, posted on Inauguration Day, 2017.