Make the most of polarizing discussions at work

What happens when politics, gender, race, religion, and other polarizing topics come up in conversations between colleagues? SHRM Knowledge Director Alexander Alonso, Ph.D., SHRM-SCP, has some unexpected answers.

In his new book, Talking Taboo: Making the Most of Polarizing Discussions at Work (SHRM, 2022), Alonso explains why some topics are taboo while others are not and offers practical strategies to assess and guide difficult conversations to safe and productive outcomes.

An expert in organizational psychology, Alonso uses research findings from the 2020 SHRM survey of politics and polarizing workplace discussions to examine an increasingly common phenomenon. What has always been common practice in the workplace – stifling the urge to broach controversial topics of discussion – has become more difficult to maintain in recent years. The traumatic events unfolding across the world, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, and across the country the 2020 election and its aftermath, have been nearly impossible to avoid talking about, presenting executive leadership and HR unprecedented challenges.

Stuffy discussion of controversial topics can do more harm than good, Alonso explained, leading to knowledge silos and anxiety. By allowing for the expression of diverse opinions, these conversations can be used to embolden an organization’s mission. The book offers concrete examples of how to respect differing viewpoints while maintaining a strong sense of community in the workplace.

The key, Alonso said, is to equip HR professionals and other leaders with the right information and tools to assess, mediate, facilitate and guide these conversations to prevent strong opinions from taking root and becoming weapons. To implement the process, Talking Taboo presents two important original resources, the “Empathy/Polarization Index” and the “Me+We+WO+RK Framework”.

The empathy/polarization index

This workforce-wide survey tool allows an organization to gauge how good or bad their employees feel about working there. Respondents score five statements from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree” to produce an overall score:

  • Belonging—My organization gives all staff a sense of belonging.
  • Openness — My organization promotes openness to different perspectives.
  • Conflict management—My organization resolves conflicts rather than burying them.
  • Polarization – My organization welcomes individual and collective opinions of all kinds and strives to prevent people from becoming further polarized with one another.
  • Entrenchment—My organization encourages staff to understand the perspectives of others, to refrain from judgment, and to prevent our opinions (even polarized ones) from being entrenched and weaponized.

A higher score indicates that the workforce perceives the organization to be more inclusive and empathetic; a lower score, less. Low-scoring organizations are likely to have less success in managing workplace polarization.

The Me+We+WO+RK Framework

This conflict management tool is designed to be used on an individual or team level. Parties to a conversation are prompted by a leader to ask themselves four questions:

  • Me: What did I experience during this conversation?
    Use self-awareness to identify your perceptions of what happened.
  • Us: What did my counterpart experience during this conversation?
    Use empathy to imagine the other person’s perspective on what happened.
  • WO: What were the professional results of this conversation?
    Use your powers of observation to recognize the impacts of what happened on you, your counterpart and the organization.
  • RK: What refined knowledge can come from these experiments and results?
    Use your in-depth understanding of what happened – gained by answering the first three questions – to guide and temper future conversations in the workplace.

The questions are designed to help people think more meaningfully about the motivations and consequences of their interactions; responses are not graded or graded. On the contrary, the Me+We+WO+RK framework is a starting point for employees and/or colleagues to improve their empathy and understanding and for the organization to help prevent the same mistakes from happening again.

SHRM body of applied skills and knowledge

Another tool for handling difficult conversations safely and productively is the foundational document of SHRM certification, the SHRM Body of Applied Skills and Knowledge (SHRM BASK).

Holders of the SHRM-CP and SHRM-SCP credentials likely already turn to SHRM BASK for advice on dealing with taboo topics in the workplace. Several of the HR Behavioral Competencies described therein stand out as useful resources, including:

  • Relationship Management (specifically its Conflict Management sub-skill).
  • Communication.
  • Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.
  • Direction and Navigation.

The knowledge areas of SHRM BASK’s technical competence, HR Expertise, are also relevant here. Relevant HR functional areas that leaders and staff can turn to in the face of these challenges include:

  • Employee engagement and retention.
  • Employees and labor relations.
  • Risk management.
  • Corporate social responsibility.

talk tabooo is available from the SHRMStore and all major book retailers. All proceeds will go to the SHRM Foundation, which is committed to making HR a social force for change.

Other SHRM resources:
SHRM Announces Program to Depolarize Workplaces and Provide Companies with a Unifying Alternative to Traditional Diversity Practices, SHRM Press Release, May 2022
Polarizing conversations in the workplace, SHRM onlineJanuary 2022
What to do when sensitive topics arise at work, SHRM onlineMay 2021
What do you know about managing political discussions in the workplace?, SHRM quiz
How should HR handle political discussions at work?, HR reviewFebruary 2020