Commentary

Respecting ideology in the workplace

Chicago TribuneMay 12, 2014 

Donald Sterling — the for-now owner of the Los Angeles Clippers — has set the bar for awful bosses at a height where the air gets thin.

His racist comments to his girlfriend — recorded for all the world to hear — earned him an appropriate lifetime ban from the National Basketball Association, a fine and the disrespect of pretty much everyone. There was no gray area in this case — the boss's own words instantly created a toxic work environment.

While that's the extreme of extreme cases, it's inevitable that some bosses and managers will hold views on fundamental subjects like religion or politics that differ from the views of their employees. The question is, when do those differences start to matter?

We've seen other recent examples of this issue playing out in the business world.

Brendan Eich, CEO of Mozilla Corp., stepped down amid a firestorm of criticism after people learned he had donated $1,000 to a group opposed to same-sex marriage. While there was no evidence his views on the subject ever crept into his business decisions, there was concern about how his opinion might reflect on the company, particularly in the more progressive Silicon Valley tech community.

The U.S. Supreme Court is now considering a case in which the owners of Hobby Lobby say that having the company's insurance plan cover emergency contraception — as required under the Affordable Care Act — violates their religious beliefs.

Can the Hobby Lobby owners' religious views have an impact on employees? You bet. And it's reasonable to believe that Eich's view on same-sex marriage could have had a negative effect on the way some workers viewed their company, regardless of his actions.

It has always been hard to maintain a secret in an office, and now, with the prevalence of social media, it's trickier than ever for a business leader to keep her or his political leanings or religious beliefs a mystery.

So, as workers and managers, we must learn to navigate these differences in opinion, hopefully in a way that remains respectful.

I spoke about this with Corinne Bendersky, an associate professor of management and organizations at the University of California-Los Angeles' Anderson School of Management.

She said differing philosophies on myriad issues should be acceptable in any workplace, as long as management's beliefs aren't "played out or enacted institutionally."

"When those ideological differences are enacted in policy decisions that have a direct impact on the employee, that's where problems arise," Bendersky said.

That's not going to happen in most companies, so let's focus more on how people deal with bosses whose views differ from their own but don't affect company policies.

Bendersky noted a concept known as "person-organization fit," which deals with how "an individual's personal values are aligned with the company."

"That alignment might matter more for some individuals, and it might matter more for some organizations than others," she said. "But it's important to be aware of that fit and the nature of that alignment, as well as an organization's tolerance for a diverse array of opinions."

Many companies are now laser-focused on creating a defined workplace culture. Technically, outside issues like politics and religion shouldn't be a factor in these cultures, but it's hard to imagine a business leader's ideology not bleeding in, at least somewhat.

So it falls on the individual to decide: Does a difference in opinion over a fundamental belief make it difficult to engage with a boss or manager?

"These are business decisions and personal career management decisions," Bendersky said. "There are First Amendment protections for employees holding values that are different than those of the organization. You can't require people to think the same way." Nor should you. Homogeneity of thought is only going to hamper a company's ability to innovate, I believe.

So the best bet is to make sure people can co-exist and respect one another's differing views.

Bendersky said companies could benefit from training that addresses ideological collisions.

"It's an important conflict-management type of skill," she said. "It's a type of conflict that often does exist and has potential to arise because our professional and personal boundaries have blurred because of things like social media."

In a recent study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Bendersky examined how we resolve ideological conflicts. Part of the study looked at people with opposing views on the Affordable Care Act, a divisive issue if ever there was one.

What her research found was that when a person began a discussion of the law by affirming the other person's point of view, the conversation moved forward in a less adversarial manner.

"If you give your opponent status, that softens their intransigence," Bendersky said. "It's like saving face, but more proactive."

For example, an Obamacare supporter could start a discussion with an opponent of the law by saying: "We disagree about Obamacare, but I really respect people who stand by their values."

"It's not conceding something superficial," Bendersky said. "It's sort of an inexpensive concession. It doesn't cost you anything to say you respect someone even though we disagree."

That's a nice bit of wisdom in these politically polarized times. And a good thing to remember in workplaces where, one hopes, a respectful diversity of opinion will always be welcome.

Rex Huppke writes for the Chicago Tribune. Send him questions by email at rhuppketribune.com or on Twitter RexWorksHere.

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