Race to the Top: The Political Pop-up

This fall, this column tackled the topic of politics at work. If you missed it, the short version of the story is that it should be avoided. But, the column noted that even if you try to avoid politics, sometimes, it just finds you, which means you end up in a “pop up” conversation; a totally unexpected and often politically charged conversation that takes you off guard.

In some ways, knowing that people will make political comments at work is half the battle. Today, the connection between government and the private sector is tighter than ever. And, we just experienced an epic election – so people will talk. And, despite how hard your employer works to create an innovative environment, someone may threaten it.

I spoke to a friend the other day. She took a long elevator ride with a woman who was talking about the presidential election and what it “will mean” for the country. The woman did not talk to anyone in the elevator specifically. Instead, she spoke to everyone, sharing her excitement and hope that our new President would “save the country.”

My friend confessed: she was glad the woman got out of the elevator before she had a chance to respond. While the woman talked, my friend’s blood boiled. The comments were “presumptive,” “stupid,” “extreme,” and “even obscene.” And, “if it had continued, she didn’t know what would have happened.” I know. It’s a big deal. But it’s not the first time politics has crept into corporate America.

In some ways, this situation proves my point: the key to dealing with these situations is knowing that they will happen. You should assume that clients, colleagues, associates, and even your boss may, at some point, make comments that will surprise and/or offend you. And, you need to decide ahead of time how to deal with it.

I have known many survivalists: they want to focus on their jobs and they resent being put in a position where they have to address political conversations. I have known lots of people who see the world through the scope of having the best economy in the world, because when everyone has a job, and their families are doing well, they feel good. I have known plenty of people who consider themselves reformists; they want a work environment that “goes further,” allowing an open exchange of ideas that will (may) float up to senior management. These are not your only options, but they demonstrate the spectrum.

One could argue that, in this day and age, it’s important to note that everyone may have a little bit of all of these traits, as well as other views that can make these “pop up” conversations more important than they seem on their face, so maybe the real test is knowing the difference between a comment that goes too far?

In my previous life, I spent a lot of time in Utah and I met some great business people who were dedicated to leveraging the state’s talent to secure international business. Utah is a language state, so global companies have historically taken a real interest in building a presence there.

I worked with one very senior executive there who had clearly prepared for political “pop ups,” and I watched him put his approach into effect in multiple settings. If he was in a meeting, or walking to a meeting, or in the break room, or in a town hall and someone made a political comment that he thought was a “pop-up”, he would slow the conversation by cleaning his glasses, coughing, and saying “Ah yes, it’s time to change the subject.” He knew that political “pop ups” could impact careers.

His approach always slowed the burn, because it fit with his personality and it was received as a reminder that the team was not responsible for political outcomes, we were all responsible for what we were paid to do every day. And because he was so adept at slowing the burn, we all worked better as a team. When we were at work, we focused on the work. And when we were at home, or with friends and family, we handled the rest. Good boundaries.

Lilyanne has worked in corporate America for 25 years and has supported eight CEOs. She wants to answer your career questions – so you can get ahead at work. Email your questions to Lilyanne@racetothetopcareers.com <mailto:Lilyanne@racetothetopcareers.com> , rttcareers@gmail.com or through your favorite connection to the Houston Forward Times.