Liking your job is no simple thing.
A lot of things go into making a person satisfied at work. Even if you hit all the markers of salary, benefits, work-life balance, and enjoying the work you do, there is something that’s much harder to put your finger on in the interview: if you’ll get along with your coworkers.
Perhaps one of the thorniest issues of workplace culture is when your beliefs clash with everyone else in the office.
The company where I work is known for having a particular political and social leaning, and although they would never admit it publicly, it’s an identity they don’t try hard to hide.
I’m the epitome of their most–let’s say, “underserved”–demographic: a gay, tattooed, non-religious, minority female with strong opinions. I’m not an abrasive person, but when I overhear hateful speech or untrue statements in the office, I can’t help but speak up. My coworkers aren’t mean-spirited people, but they are misinformed about a lot of things.
How can I stay in good standing with my colleagues and managers, without forfeiting my beliefs?
-Biting My Tongue
It is particularly difficult to have conversations about politics and social issues with people who hold different views from your own. These conversations have always been difficult, but when people function in an echo chamber of hearing their own beliefs from everyone around them (and likely in the media they consume), it’s even more difficult to be the sole voice of dissent.
Here are a few suggestions for how you can engage in conversations that address difficult and charged political and social topics:
Find common ground. It is particularly difficult to have conversations about political and social topics when you don’t know the people you are talking to that well. How well have you gotten to know the people at work? What is their life like? What are the things they enjoy? What are the difficulties they face?
The better that you know the people you work with, the more that the issues on which you disagree can be placed into a context. The hardest part about having these conversations is when the relationship you have with people is based primarily on the conflict in political and social values. If you have established points of commonality, then your disagreements do not need to define your relationship completely. Creating common ground also helps to break the “us” versus “them” mentality.
Don’t let your biases sink a conversation. Your letter uses a number of charged phrases: “hateful speech,” “untrue statements,” and “misinformed.”
The first of these, “hateful speech” is potentially problematic, because it imputes a motive to the speaker. It makes the assumption that someone said something with the intent to spread hate. That is possible, of course, but it is also possible that people are using language that might hurt someone else without the intent of spreading hate. They may be ignorant of the influence of their words on others.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that you should accept the hurtful things that people say, and if your boss or coworkers are using racial or ethnic slurs or degrading or demeaning language, that is a different matter that you should document and address with human resources.
If, however, you simply don’t agree with what they are saying, it’s hard to make progress in correcting them if you assume their motives. Most people want to be good members of a community, and they are not trying to hurt others deliberately. Starting with that assumption can make it easier to engage in a conversation.
The other two statements are charged, because the word “truth” is loaded. Some people speak out of pure ignorance, but often people have an information source they trust that gives them a perspective on an issue. Fighting their beliefs head-on under the banner of “truth” generally creates conflict rather than discussion.
When you hear people making claims that you disagree with, it is useful to engage in a discussion. Ask them what the basis is for their statement. Provide an alternative perspective to view the issues. Focus the discussion on how to evaluate the evidence for a position rather than focusing on truth. That approach has the potential to lead people to think more about their beliefs later.
Take the other person’s perspective. A problem with having discussions about political and social concepts is that they can tread on people’s protected values. A protected value is some issue for which a person is unwilling to accept any tradeoffs.
For example, in the United States, abortion is such a hot-button issue, because both sides in this debate often have protected values. When there is a potential violation of a protected value, people react with moral outrage.
That makes it difficult for people to engage in conversations that relate to their protected values. Even when someone in the workplace transgresses one of your deeply held values, it is important to start the conversation with the assumption that they had a reason why they felt justified to do so.
In the early part of the conversation, listen for information that will help you to take their perspective on their actions. By understanding why people do what they do, it allows you to find ways to engage with them that provide opportunities for meaningful discussion rather than argument.
Ultimately, there is a fine line you need to walk in the workplace between standing up for your beliefs and getting along with others. It is possible to do both, but it requires establishing a relationship with your colleagues that is rooted in respect.
Finally, if you find that you are always reaching an impasse with these topics and discussing them isn’t important to the work that you need to do for the company, consider politely stating that you’d rather not participate and politely bow out of the conversation. If that’s not possible and your clash in beliefs is creating a hostile work environment, you should consider looking for a different job.
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