Wednesday, November 7, 2012

We Won! You Lose! And Other Candid Post-Election Taunts

The elections are over. If your candidate won, perhaps your euphoric thought is to adorn your workspace with election paraphernalia. We're here to recommend three other approaches for your post-election workplace.

Let's face it, elections are highly polarizing. This is particularly true in countries where each side tries to paint a picture of the opposition as evil, immoral and bad to encourage people to vote. The parties talk as if they could never work together. Most of the disagreements are made out to be my-way-or-the-highway type differences. There is no room for compromise.

Workplaces, conversely, are best when they are not highly polarized! Although we may disagree with our colleagues politically, we have to work together and meet common organizational goals. Otherwise we are unlikely to have much of a career future and the organization is sure to turn into a public version of the Brad Pitt movie Fight Club.

So what do you do when political differences threaten to get in the way of the work? Here are three things to remind your colleagues.

1. Empathy is one of a leader’s most important social skills.

Many researchers have pointed out that leadership requires the ability to see the world from the perspective of the follower and act accordingly. In the workplace that means that if you want to collaborate with others you have to be able to demonstrate genuine interest and understanding.

Daniel Goleman (former New York Times writer on psychology and author of the book Emotional Intelligence) and others in the field have labeled empathy as one of the key components of emotional intelligence. It’s at least as important as technical skills in getting things done. Lack of emotional intelligence is a significant source of career derailment.

When everyone returns to work after the election, you can ask your colleagues to demonstrate their emotional intelligence by empathizing with people who are disappointed their side lost.

2. The other side usually isn’t bad or stupid. It’s just different.

It’s tempting to think that people who don’t see the moral or ethical issues the way you do are evil or just plain stupid. That usually isn’t the case. It is widely understood that moral reasoning is something that develops in predictable ways but often leads to very different outcomes.

For instance, there is a lot of room between, “the vase fell down” and “I broke it.” Children start off with simplistic reasoning of the kind that tries to avoid punishment and maximize what’s in it for them. As we mature we think of acting in accord with social authority and social norms. Eventually, some people develop more sophisticated reasoning that depends on a deeper view of social obligations and universal ethical principles. It’s the difference between your six-year-old and Gandhi.

Still, you would be wrong if you think more sophisticated reasoning leads you to the “right” answer. Researchers have found that almost all ethical questions can be answered in a variety of ways depending on your most basic values. The sophistication of your reasoning is almost irrelevant. It is why you see clever politicians on both sides of most debates. (For more on this see a cleverly argued example called the Heinz dilemma).

3. Diversity is the key to innovation and growth.

What if those basic values really are very different back in the workplace?

Your organization should have a powerful and positive culture. Even if it doesn’t, a little micro-culture among the people around you is created by how you react and treat each other. Some values are very basic, such as treating everyone with dignity and respect and caring for the well-being of others. Other values can vary and may often be subjective. An example in the workplace can be balancing following the rules with bending the rules to put the customers first. Having different views is essential to a high-performing team.

When teams show reasonable differences among their values, the outcomes of the teams are better than when the teams are uniform and not diverse. For example, a recent study by McKinsey found that in 180 publicly traded companies around the world the boards in the top quartile for diversity achieved shareholder returns 53 percent higher than their peers.

So no matter who wins on election night, it is the actions in the following days that demonstrate who are the real winners.

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