Politics, masks: How to defuse workplace tensions

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If ever there was a time in which banking leaders should be laser focused on team unity, it is now.

Regardless of how today’s political climate resolves, there are challenges before us that will continue. These challenges go beyond potential policy changes and the resulting economic impact. Sure, those are real and consequential changes, but external.

However, there are internal challenges that can be equally perilous. And disregarding those can weaken the cohesiveness of banker teams.

After presenting at an online banker conference in the spring, I was asked for my opinion on the then-new mandatory mask-wearing policies of certain public places.

I responded by asking if it would be okay to speak about religion or politics instead, because those might be less contentious topics. My answer made folks laugh, but there was much seriousness to it. This was a time in which great differences existed in the protocols required from county to county and state to state.

As the conversation turned more serious, I pointed out that we can’t ignore that there were likely people on their teams who strongly disagreed with mandatory mask-wearing policies.

However, the same was true at locations in which masks were not required. There were employees who vehemently believed masks were necessary.

In the end, rules were established. You may like it, or you may not. But you followed the rules.

My point to those leaders remains highly applicable today. It is important during contentious times to realize that some — possibly half — of your team members are unhappy about certain decisions. Displaying appreciation for their patience and empathy for their feelings is critical.

Months later as branches reopened, one exasperated manager told me she felt that her teams were becoming discordant, even between team members who had always been wonderful co-workers.

The stress affected them, and if not addressed, she feared their enthusiasm for their jobs and co-workers would fall apart. Of course, the bigger danger there was the possible impact on customer experiences.

Efforts to communicate more and deliver messages that reinforced team unity helps. Allowing people to express concerns in a controlled and respectful manner helps as well.

Managers don’t lead branches or technology; they lead people. It’s the most challenging but rewarding aspect of most managers’ jobs.

This year has already produced challenges galore. And in some ways, the divisions created during a heated presidential campaign feel deeper and more personal to many people than anything experienced this year to date.

Keeping politics out of the workplace is a widely held sentiment. That sentiment isn’t naive. It’s aspirational. It’s also extremely difficult in today’s digital world.

It is also highly likely that the presidential election — whether disputes stretch on for weeks or not — will dominate conversations for some time.

A middle manager in a large institution recently shared with me how he has seen more political debates in work situations than he believes is healthy. People who have always worked well together are becoming increasingly argumentative.

We talked about the need to sometimes use the same “conflict de-escalating” approaches used with upset customers with each other.

Political debates tend to create division. When was the last time anyone had a heated political debate and left feeling good about it? Minds are seldom changed. Relationships, however, oftenare changed.

Messages from leaders about the importance of respectful work environments have always been appropriate. In the days to come, these messages will be critical.

In an increasingly contentious period, having a workplace that clearly makes mutual respect and professionalism non-negotiables will improve employee satisfaction, morale and productivity.

These are deeply dividing times. Organizations that reinforce to their people that they consist of many unique individuals, but always remain one unified team, will best weather the storm.

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Election 2020 Politics Donald Trump Employee relations Employee communications Employee engagement