Conversations in the workplace have become more tense, angry and defensive. This is not to say that the workplace is always a space where everyone agrees about everything; understandably, we are not all like-minded. However, currently, there are multiple external motivators for differences of opinion and discord. To name a few, there are anti-DEIB actions across universities and in some State governments, budget cuts in different organizations, posting on social media about local and national politics, and the unforeseen war in the Middle East and the continuing war between Ukraine and Russia—now in its second year.

Resetting the purpose for work

In my consultations with leaders to whom others look to for guidance on the polarization among colleagues on different topics, I offer a few suggestions. 

  1. Remind colleagues to reflect on the purpose of their role or position and why they go to work. Who counts on them?
  2. Check-in with team members by engaging in one-to-one conversations. If someone is reluctant to talk, don’t push.
  3. Get back to shared conversations about projects, deadlines, and the next budget cycle, as a few examples.
  4. Practice active listening. If someone is hurting and wants to be heard, be a listener and be emphatic if possible. You do not have to solve all issues.
  5. Do not take sides. If disagreements escalate, seek outside assistance, such as inviting the ombudsperson.

Considerations 

When emotions are running high because of external factors, compounded with the demands of work, leaders could consider the following.

  1. Individuals may be feeling a sense of vulnerability and a lack of safety.
  2. Helplessness may also be experienced. Take note of nonverbal demeanor.
  3. Past experiences may be triggering current situations and reactions.

Final Thoughts

Workplaces bring together individuals from diverse backgrounds with different histories, talents and goals. Leaders must be prepared to be person-centered in times of turmoil. This is where emotional intelligence is most necessary. We must attend to individuals’ feelings and contexts, both internal and external, take note of our own emotions, and be prepared to express goodwill and compassion.