“Fear” by Patrick Feller is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Editorial

Politics Are Taking a Toll on Workplace Productivity: Here's What to Do

7 minute read
Noreen Seebacher avatar

The best digital workplace technologies are apparently no match for the fear, anxiety, anger and other politically inspired emotions fueled by what is arguably a world gone mad.

Three months after the US presidential election, politics are still impacting workplace productivity, according to Bill Catlette, an executive coach who defines his mission as "helping clients connect the dots between people, passion, performance and profit, eliminate blind-spots, improve leadership habits and build lasting competitive advantage."

The Political Brain Drain

It's no surprise that the 2016 presidential campaign has taken a toll on American workers. A survey released by the American Psychological Association (APA) way back in September confirmed nearly half of those respondents said people were more likely to discuss politics this year than in years past.

More than one in four younger employees (age 18 to 34) reported feeling stressed out because of political discussions at work, and more than twice as many men as women said political talk is making them less productive, according to the survey from APA’s Center for Organizational Excellence.

The average workplace is a hodgepodge of people from different backgrounds who might not ordinarily interact with each other. "When you add politics to the mix — a deeply personal and emotional topic for many — there is potential for tension, conflict and problems for both employees and the organization,” noted David W. Ballard, director of APA’s Center for Organizational Excellence.

Heated discussions and divisive rhetoric generated during the election season can take a toll on people’s well-being and affect their job performance, Ballard continued.

What's worse, it hasn't stopped — a reality Catlette described as "very unusual." You rarely see so many people tuning in to politics on company time so far past Election Day. “And it’s not going to end anytime soon,” he added.

Of course it's not, because some new crisis seems to occur every single day.

Every. Flipping. Day.

Less Productivity, Regardless of Political Party

Politics makes strange bedfellows — and discontented employees.

Employees are likely spending an extra 30 minutes or more per day engaging in some kind of political activity, he estimated. And just to be clear: We're not talking party politics here.

Workers across the political spectrum are tuning out at work and tuning in to politics, he said.

A former executive at FedEx and ADP, Memphis-based Catlette is a partner at Contented Cows, an executive leadership and research firm. He is the author of a talent development book series, Contented Cows Give Better Milk, which specializes in helping companies produce happier and more productive employees.

So how can companies address the very real productivity zappers of politically-infused angst and uncertainty?

You may not be able to stop workplace political discussions, but Catlette said there are steps company leaders can take to address distracted workers and at least maintain a basic level of workplace sanity.

Set Boundaries

How can businesses support free speech and an open culture without losing hour upon hour to political debate? For starters, Catlette said, stop trying.

"As a leader, don't assume the burden of trying to operate a workplace with a completely open, normless culture. When any of us enters a church, courtroom, restaurant or other institution, we are expected to conform to certain norms for that particular environment. A workplace is no different," he told CMSWire.

Remind your team that someone, somewhere is paying for everyone to be on the job, and they are more interested in the team's productivity than its views on politics.

"That said, yes, each of us enjoys certain freedom of expression, but in the workspace, that freedom has boundaries that are framed by civility, professionalism and the organization's prescribed norms or rules. We must also remember that our freedom of expression stops just short of the next person's nose. Whenever our exercise of that freedom becomes off-putting or offensive to another, or keeps them (or us) from doing our best work, it's a problem," he said.

Respect Workplace Norms

It’s vital for leaders to maintain perspective about what they are charged with doing, and what they aren't.

Workplace leaders are not expected to try and replicate the freedoms that people have within the confines of their own homes or even when they are walking down the street.

Rather, within the context of an organization, leaders are responsible "for maintaining conditions whereby people can do their very best work helping us 'get the wash out' and then return home at day's end in the same condition that they arrived for work, taking satisfaction for having done good work in the company of people they enjoy," he said.

Learning Opportunities

Keep Everyone Busy

Catlette said he encourages leaders to adopt a philosophy (and a standard) whereby "they treat people like the adults they thought they were when they hired them, and make it a point to tell people that, plainly and simply."

That standard applies not just to conversations in the workplace, but also in external references, including social media, about the organization.

Catlette said he is also encouraging his clients to keep people busy … "very busy."

"Take on an extra project (meaningful work, not busy work). Fill any schedule voids with developmental activity. This would also be a good time to engage in a community benefit project that allows people to work on a cause that is greater than themselves. Most find it very rewarding," he said.

Have the Right Team

Companies that have the right teams in place will find it easier to curtail obsessive (or offensive) comments and irritations — ones that seriously threaten to disrupt the workday.

"Here again, we encourage clients to prevent this type of situation by carefully recruiting and hiring people who fit and can operate successfully within the organization's culture. We'd rather help them prevent the problem than teach them how to manage it," Catlette said.

But stuff happens in spite of the best precautions.

Few people could have predicted the caustic impacts of this year's election, which has made many even normally mild-mannered employees eager to express points of view. In those cases, managers should have an immediate, private and friendly but businesslike chat with the employee in question.

Encourage Adult Behavior

When differences of opinion cause tempers between employees to flare, he said it's time to take a deep breath and a step back.

"I encourage managers not to set up shop as the mommy or daddy in the workplace."

Rather, he continued, they should reinforce the message that this is a workplace full of adults and encourage workers to try to resolve differences respectfully and on their own.

"Each of us can reasonably be expected to show some tolerance of personal differences, and human frailty. If and when someone offends you on the job or interferes materially with your ability to get your work done, politely take the matter up with them.

"That's exactly how you'd like to be treated were the shoe on the other foot."

Usually matters can be resolved with clear and sincere conversation. When it can't be resolved, then both employees should raise the issue with management. "I want both employees to come see me, together, and we'll resolve it," he added.

As with so many other things, perhaps the best thing leaders can do these days is to simply set a good example. Here's hoping everyone in the US starts to appreciate the merits of that kind of thinking.