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Political Aspirations

by Stephany Schings, Communications Specialist 

Is it Wise to Be Open About Your Political Affiliations at the Office?

With the presidential election less than a week away, opinions and emotions are running hot on both sides of the political aisle.

Odds are some of those political opinions have made it into the workplace by way of water cooler conversations or cubicle campaign paraphernalia. But is it wise to be open about your political affiliations in the workplace?

SIOP member Stuart Sidle thinks so.

Sidle is an assistant professor and program director in the University of New Haven’s industrial-organizational psychology program. Sidle said that while the wisdom of talking about politics depends on the situation, it can be okay and even beneficial to organizations.

When managers allow and engage in talks about politics, Sidle said, it can actually demonstrate competencies on the part of the managers, such as inclusiveness, tolerance of diversity, and the ability to engage in positive disagreement.

“By allowing people to disagree, by welcoming people who have less popular political opinions, you are showing that you are tolerant and accept different points of view,” Sidle explained. “You can use it as a tool to welcome diversity and stress inclusiveness.”

Sidle said these discussions can also highlight another competency: a strategic mindset.

“Politics affects the workplace,” Sidle said. “Instead of discussing the people, you can discuss the issues and how politicians’ decisions can impact the business. In the current election many politicians are expressing ideas about taxes, nuclear power, alternative energy and health care. These issues affect many companies.”

However, SIOP member Janelle Enns, assistant professor of organizational behavior at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada, said disagreements can lead to unwelcome conflict.

“When people identify very strongly with a group they belong to, such as the Republican Party, their attitudes toward members of other groups, such as Democrats, can turn out to be quite negative, should they feel that their identity or the well-being of their group is threatened by the other group,” Enns explained. “When people hold very different and strong beliefs, attitudes, or values as a result of belonging to a group—in this case a political party—there is always the possibility for conflict, particularly if one party feels threatened by another in some way.”

Sidle agrees that a few downsides do exist to discussing politics.  First, you don’t want to offend anyone, especially when it comes to common discriminatory issues such as race, age, and gender.

“You don’t want anyone to think you believe they couldn’t manage because they are too old, for example,” Sidle said.

Other problems arise when there is too much political talk.

“If it’s going to turn off the customer, or if it causes too much tension, or no one gets their work done, then it is not a good idea to discuss politics in the workplace,” Sidle said.

Enns noted that conflict usually only occurs if the political issues are brought to the forefront of discussions with individuals who have different political views.

“This would likely happen in the workplace only if their identification with a party was salient while they were at work and if they were faced with members of another opposing party,” Enns added.

But strong group relationships and identification with the organization can override potential conflict, Enns noted.

“Conflict may not happen if the two individuals from different parties trusted and respected each other in the work environment,” she said. “Also, if their identification with the organization as a group is fairly strong, that may minimize the impact of other group memberships on conflict, such as a political party, while at work.”

Sidle said the relationship can work in the opposite way as well. These political discussions can also make groups stronger.

“Teams that value diversity have more creativity,” Sidle said. “People who feel comfortable disagreeing with one another are more effective.”

To help minimize conflict and maximize the positive effects of discussing politics at work, Sidle recommends following a few simple rules: (a) no ranting or lectures: don’t dump your ideas on others, (b) talk about issues, not people, (c) end the discussion if people do not feel comfortable sharing.

“Basically, even though it’s a dangerous topic at times, if it does come up, recognize that there are ways to do it right,” Sidle suggested. “Even though there are risks, there are benefits too.”