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Don’t Let Politics Poison the Workplace


Originally appeared in Stanford Business magazine.

Don’t Let Politics Poison the Workplace

The political polarization wrought by the 2020 presidential election is bound to creep into the workplace. Here are some ways managers can become peacekeepers.

by Steve Hawk

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David Demarest: Think in Terms of Baby Steps

David Demarest is a lecturer in management at Stanford GSB and the former White House communications director under President George H. W. Bush.

“There’s no question that the country is as polarized as I’ve ever seen it in my lifetime. And I think that business leaders may have a unique opportunity, because of the reach of their constituencies, to play a formidable and positive role in a circumstance like this.

“If you look at institutions across the board — from religion to government to the media — a lot of them have taken a beating in recent years. But many businesses have withstood that negativity, and that puts their leaders in an enviable position. They have additional credibility, which gives them space to lead. And they have multiple constituencies. Employees. Customers. Investors.

“So business leaders aren’t speaking for just one slice of the pie, they aren’t speaking just as a business — they’re speaking as part of the fabric of the country. And they have an obligation to be thinking about all of their stakeholders, and about the community.

“Leadership is paradoxical. Leadership involves listening as well as speaking. It involves being decisive as well as having humility. Those characteristics are very important in a circumstance like this. No business leader is going to be able to intuit everything that is troubling people. They’re going to have to go out and learn, and speak to people, and listen to people, and organize an effort that’s authentic, because any effort like this has to be authentic. We need leaders who say, ‘The status quo in this country is not acceptable. A divided house cannot stand.’

“Start with the big picture: Do we want to solve this problem? Do we agree that it’s a problem?

“And then it’s important to think in terms of baby steps. From my years in government, one of the things I learned about international diplomacy is that you rarely get a diplomatic breakthrough by virtue of the big moment. You get it through small steps of confidence that are built between adversaries. Ultimately, those small steps evolve into larger and larger steps, and that’s how you get across the finish line.

“Which means that, as a leader, it’s important to remember that this is going to take a while. We didn’t get to this point in our country overnight. The polarizing issues have been building for decades, and some of them are more obvious than others. So it’s going to take time, and that needs to be part of the conversation — that there’s no quick fix. There has to be a long-term commitment to that phrase: ‘a more perfect union’ — in other words, making our country a better country.”