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Say What? Navigating Controversial Topics in the Office

With the Holidays around the corner, I’m sure most of you already know which family members or in-laws to avoid at the dinner table. You don’t want another political lecture from Uncle Ned, do you? If you’d avoid it at a family party, skipping over controversial topics at the workplace may seem to like a no-brainer. But what if there were benefits to be gained from a meaningful, open, and respectful discussion regarding touchy subjects?

Following the controversial non-indictments of police officers involved in the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, we are in the midst of highly charged atmosphere. The topics of race relations and our criminal justice system have once again been brought to the forefront of national discussion. Emotions are at a boiling point, especially for communities of color who unfortunately see such tragedies as nothing new, but still ever painful and incensing.

For govies, most of us are very politically and socially aware and, therefore, feel a desire to discuss these pressing issues with our colleagues. In the workplace, however, such discussions must be approached carefully or not at all. Here are some tips on keeping cool and generating a productive discussion on controversial topics – such as race, religion, or politics – in the office.

Keep it professional and consensual. A shouting match or a one-way proselytizing effort is highly inappropriate and could easily lead to repercussions from management. Also, try to leave assumptions at the door. If you’ve read one partisan blog on the topic, it’s likely the discussion will go downhill fast.

Do not interfere with day-to-day operations. These discussions have a time and a place that you must feel out for yourselves. They should not interfere with or damage important working relationships or interrupt your duties.

Actively listen. There’s nothing more frustrating or disrespectful than intently listening to someone but then getting cut off or disregarded when it’s your turn to speak or suggest something new. If you’re delving into a tough topic, keep your ears open – not just your mouth.

Keep it short. Obviously there’s downtime in most offices, but your workday should not be consumed with too many unrelated activities – controversial or not. If you wish to continue your conversation, do so at the conclusion of the workday.

For further advice, Mallary Tytel, President and Founder of South Dakota-based Healthy Workplaces, sums up controversial workplace discussions very well:

“Controversy is uncomfortable, and many individuals do not know how to manage conflict in a positive way. People can get hurt and become defensive, which in turn may lead to tension in an environment where people must work together and support each other. However, when effectively managed, controversy and disagreement have many positive results for an organization, including the exploration of different ideas and opinions, better decision-making, and a broader scope of options… Knowing how to raise issues and participate in meaningful conflict is a critical key to success in work and in life.”

Tytel also laid out the following questions for your organization to consider:

  • Does your organization provide opportunities for interpersonal relationships, problem solving, conflict resolution, and non-defensive communication?
  • Does your organizational culture promote the notion that differences in ideas and beliefs are welcome and expected, that healthy debate is the expectation, and that all opinions are equal?
  • Finally, does your organization recognize, reward, and thank people who are willing to take a stand and support their position?

If the answer to any of these questions is “no,” you may want to think about how you can change that within your organization. With that being said, not all organizations are the same. Organizations have different cultures and various demographic make-ups, so these tips may or may not be relevant or appropriate for your workplace. For some, just avoiding certain topics may be the best route – just as you’d avoid Uncle Ned. However, I believe it is important to at least consider such discussions. After all, if we can’t even muster a word about our society’s underlying problems, how do we ever plan on solving them?

Any thoughts on generating productive discussions/debates with colleagues? Please share below!

Photo credit: Flickr Frits Ahlefeldt-Laurvig.

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Tua'au Kereti Mata'utia, Jr., J.D.

I agree, organization must adopt a culture that treats diversity as equal.

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