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Sturt & Nordstrom: 3 practices to handle debate in the workplace

Political and religious discussions at work can often be perceived as time-bombs that could create chaos. However, let us not forget that it is our differences, our disagreements, and our diversity of perception that often lead to great outcomes.
Political and religious discussions at work can often be perceived as time-bombs that could create chaos. However, let us not forget that it is our differences, our disagreements, and our diversity of perception that often lead to great outcomes.
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This article originally appeared at Forbes.com.

“I understand the stakes are high with this presidential election,” an employee wrote. “But, I just want to make it through tomorrow at the office. It started as civilized debate over the candidates. But now the tension has grown to a point where some of my coworkers won’t even speak to each other.”

There’s no doubt that the campaigning and debates in 2016 ignited tempers like we’ve never seen before in a presidential race. Of course, we expect commentary, strong opinions and some mudslinging from prominent voices in the media. But this election felt more personal, and passionate disagreements were far more prevalent than ever before — probably due to the fact that, through social networks, we all have actually become the media. Scroll through Facebook for just 10 seconds and you’ll find at least a handful of your friends (yes, the same friends that were posting memes of cute kittens or recipes for chicken pot pie just a year ago) were enraged by one candidate or another. People weren’t just ranting about how much they disliked the candidates, but how much they disliked anyone who might support an opposing candidate.

“I don’t know what to do at the office,” that employee continued. “I understand that people have the right speak about their candidate, but do I really have to listen to it all day?”

The employee raised a good point. How do we as employees, or as leaders, manage the debates that can happen in the office?

Curious about how the presidential debates impacted work teams, we asked some of our friends if they experienced any issues at work.

“The owner of my company (was) very vocal about who he supports,” said an employee from Idaho. “I think it (made) some employees uncomfortable. But it hasn’t caused any big issues.”

A business owner in Rhode Island wrote that his concern wasn’t about employees debating in the office. “I'm worried about what they’re posting online,” he said prior to the election. “This is a real estate firm. Often our clients are, or become, connections on our personal social media pages. I understand we all have the right to speak our minds on social media, but I worry about how our customers might respond to certain viewpoints.”

“I’m probably the guy everyone gets irritated about,” another employee wrote. “This is our country. I don’t care if anyone is offended. I have a right, and I believe a responsibility, to talk about who I’m voting for, and who everyone should vote for.”

A lot of people who responded claimed most of the people they work with were quite respectful. However, according to Sonia Johnson, Executive President and Founder of The Society for Employee Relations, before the election, “The tension is a real problem, and I’m receiving a lot of phone calls from members asking how to deal with it.”

Not being experts like Johnson, who holds three law degrees, and the highest level of certification in Human Resources, we wanted advice on what leaders should do to manage tension that might be created over political differences. Do you address it as a leader? And if so, how?

“Within the past three months we’ve seen a 55 percent increase in disputes during the political season this year,” said Johnson, whose firm specializes in Employee Relations, Labor Relations, Human Resources and Dispute Resolution. "But the disputes we’ve resolved are not based on the actual politics. When we dig deeper we find the issues are actually assumptions and unexpressed political views.”

Basically, Johnson said not talking about politics and religion at work is actually more dangerous and damaging than talking about them. ”We’ve been conditioned to not talk about our religious and political views at work because it can disrupt conformity. And, that’s where the problem lies. When we don’t talk about our views and why we believe a certain way, we start to make assumptions about what other people believe. This often leads to us believing that others are judging us — or disagreeing with us.”

It’s common human psychology, and we’ve shared numerous stories in the past about how employees feel unappreciated, even disliked, by their boss simply because their boss isn’t saying anything about their performance, when the opposite was actually true. When people don’t talk to us, we assume they’re displeased or disagree with us.

“If you want to manage opposing opinions, especially something as heated as politics, stop focusing on the ‘what’ and start focusing on the how,” said Johnson, who recently shared a comprehensive list of best practices online. A few things to keep in mind, especially during election season are:

1. Train all employees on the benefits of inclusivity and diversity. Make sure to use the latest training materials, which include the consequences of acting against employees who express their religious or political beliefs in a civil manner.

2. Do not provide cover for employees who use invective, abusive and disrespectful conduct in political and religious discussions. Outbursts affect the sharing of all ideas.

3. Ask “why”? If you want to know why a coworker, manager, or employee is passionately supporting a political candidate, ask them which issue they strongly support, and how it impacts their life. Viewing the world through their lens allows for greater understanding.

Political and religious discussions at work can often be perceived as time-bombs that could create chaos. However, let us not forget that it is our differences, our disagreements, and our diversity of perception, thought, and experience that leads to the greatest outcomes.

David Sturt and Todd Nordstrom work with the O.C. Tanner Institute. Learn more about The New York Times bestseller "Great Work: How to Make a Difference People Love" (McGraw-Hill) at www.greatwork.com.