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Beyond the election: 5 tips for leadership through discord

November 4, 2022 - 8 min read
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    Staying fully focused, aligned, and engaged the past several months has been hard. The noise and emotions of an election season make it that much harder.

    No one leading people or managing a business will deny the challenges: inflation and economic uncertainty add an element of doubt to every plan; disparate realities have set in as parts of the workforce return to the office, frontline workers never left, and others say "no way"; war and its potential weigh on our collective psyches; and, of course, elections in the US and abroad create a charged environment.

    Post-election, the charged environment will likely persist. We still face broad uncertainty and deep divisions. Everyone is feeling the impact in ways both tangible and intangible. 

    But businesses and other organizations can't stop. Companies are still serving customers, making decisions, and launching products. And organizations need their people to make it happen. They need their people and teams to work together, to be productive, and to continue to push boundaries, have great ideas, and excel at execution.

    The question is: How can people managers lead effectively through this time? How should they approach the needs of the business while also meeting the needs of their people?

    If you feel a little overwhelmed, or afraid to make a wrong step, you’re not alone.

    It isn’t easy, but leading through change is part of the leadership you already do. It feels amplified, but meaning and purpose, belonging, and resilience still apply. Through conversations with our coaches and behavioral scientists, we’ve pulled together some highlights below to help leaders like you lead productively through the weeks ahead.

    Tip 1: Be realistic in expectations and priorities 

    Some weeks might not hit all of your productivity targets. Consider your priorities and communicate those clearly, yet compassionately, to your employees. If there are initiatives that cannot slip, reorient resources to make sure they stay on target.

    Be sure to think about the outcomes, for the workforce and/or culture, that are most important to you and your company.

    Maybe it is having a workforce that emerges cohesive and more strongly committed to a mission for the customer. Maybe it is having your people feel heard and less alone. Maybe it is reinforcing a cultural value of curiosity and inclusion where people make sense of and negotiate their differences. Hone these goals and make a plan to move toward them.

    Tip 2: Reaffirm belonging and shared values

    It’s tempting, but trying to ban all political talk may backfire. It probably won’t resolve the tensions that threaten productivity and teamwork, either.

    Instead, think about positive steps you can take, proactively, to reinforce commonality and your company's values. Use meetings and other communications to reaffirm your commitment to values like mutual respect, quality, customer, and care. Many companies voice their support for the democratic process and this can continue to frame your company’s position amid differing perspectives.

    At an organizational level — modeled and reinforced by managers — be clear on what behaviors won’t be accepted, such as interfering with operations, jeopardizing safety, or creating hostile work environments

    Tip 3: Focus on shared meaning and purpose

    Many people feel anxious about potential disagreements and conflict with co-workers as much as anything. Many look to work as a respite from politics and doom-scrolling the news. Continue to create opportunities for connection.

    Help your teams by reminding them of the ultimate users and beneficiaries of their work and by talking openly about your own attempts to find meaning, purpose, and satisfaction in the day-to-day work. Refocus them on what they can control: the way they show up on a call, their own contributions to delivering a product, or craftsmanship around a particular project or customer. 

    Tip 4: Let people feel heard

    Different people might be feeling a mixture of relief, joy, apprehension, fear, and anger just to name a few. Acknowledge this difficult stew of emotions.

    Create space, ideally in smaller team and 1:1 settings, for people to express what they are feeling. As one of our coaches pointed out, there are members who feel like their companies have a dominant political mindset in their team or affinity group that they are uncomfortable pushing against. When identity and personal values feel threatened, the zone of psychological safety feels even smaller.

    As a leader, your words and actions demonstrate whether diverse backgrounds, experiences, and ideas are truly welcome and valued. Today’s leaders need to promote inclusive environments where people experience belonging, where differences are respected, efforts are recognized, and everyone is a valued contributor. 

    Tip 5: Model resiliency and compassion

    Leaders set the tone for team and organizational resilience by navigating adversity effectively.

    All of the feelings floating in your workiverse are likely amped and extreme. This leads to distraction, lack of focus, and irritability as well as poor sleep and unhealthy eating and drinking habits.

    Manage your physical well-being and the physical aspects of your own internal discord. Encourage your team to do so, as well. It's generally easier to react with empathy, curiosity, and patience when we aren't in the grip of flight-or-flight reactions. Recognize and let go of the most destabilizing aspects of your reactions. For example, try a simple breathing exercise to slow heart rate and counteract fear or anger, or throw down a fitness challenge to release tension

    A path paved with good intent

    Finally, stay alert to the endless potential for misunderstandings, disengagement, and loss of perspective in a remote- and text-based world. If you find yourself reacting to something a colleague said or unleashing expletives at an email, assume positive intent, get curious, and schedule some time to connect in a 1:1.

    Similarly, take this approach if a colleague becomes uncharacteristically inflexible, or unwilling to make tradeoffs or compromise. We're all under a lot of pressure in different ways, so an offhand comment could reflect a need for support — for them or for you. 

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    Published November 4, 2022

    Maggie Wooll

    Managing Editor

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