Don’t Let Your Causes Destroy Work Relationships

Fred Mael
Baltimore SmartCEO Magazine, November 2004
You’re a good person, a team player, and a good citizen at work. You usually get along well with your coworkers and you appreciate diversity. Yet some subjects are so close to your heart and so involved with pain and suffering that you can’t imagine how someone can hold the opposite view. If a coworker holds that opposite view – passionately – it can spell trouble for you, your work group, and your job.

For example, you may be strongly pro-life or pro-choice and your coworker holds the opposing view. Or, you may be Arab, Israeli, or Jewish, or Irish Catholic or Protestant, and your coworker has strong opposing views about achieving peace in the Middle East or Northern Ireland. You may strongly support a candidate or a position that your coworker loathes. Affirmative action, animal rights, protecting the environment, our foreign entanglements – one or many subjects evoke your strong views and emotions. The common thread is that you are both passionate about your views. Election season may heighten these feelings because now you feel that it actually matters that others see things your way and vote accordingly.

Politics, Religion, and workThe easy answer is that you will observe the rule not to discuss politics or religion at work, but sometimes the subjects seem to be right in your face. A bombing just happened! Thousands of babies (or hundreds of soldiers) are dying! Our water is becoming undrinkable! Another friend unfairly lost a job or a promotion! You feel that you must share with colleagues – yet your coworker sees it so differently that you see him as callous and mean-spirited.

You are so sensitive to certain terms and their connotations – “terrorist” or “freedom fighter “, “pro-life” or “pro-choice”, “quotas” or “discrimination” – that just hearing them used by someone else compels you to rush to correct them. And of course, when you receive email with sympathetic articles or websites, you just have to pass them along to your coworkers – and so does your opposing coworker. Soon you are avoiding each other. You implicitly ask others to choose sides, and soon you both become hazards for workgroup cohesion – and liabilities for your boss. If you are the boss, or you are both managers, the possibilities for poisoning the workplace are even greater.

Getting AlongHow do you get along and work effectively while maintaining your cherished beliefs? Talking it out with each other won’t help – you aren’t likely to convince each other to surrender your deeply held values, and you aren’t about to give up loyalties just for peace with a coworker. Besides, the two of you aren’t likely to resolve conflicts that have stymied nations and societies, sometimes for decades. So how do you coexist? Assuming that your counterpart is an honorable person without a personal vendetta, here are some tips.

Consider Empathy – try looking at the world from your coworker’s vantage point – her culture, background, and life situation. You may detest her views – but try to see how a decent person coming from that perspective would come to that conclusion. Think about how you might view the issue if you were she. Your empathy will make the difference between disagreeing with someone you respect and demonizing that person. Focus on Commonalities – No matter how much you disagree, you share common concerns – the common values of your company or profession, your efforts to make a living or raise children, or your desire for a healthy and productive life. Focusing on what makes you similar will let you empathize. In fact, your shared concerns about the very same “hot topics” may bind you as well as repel you. For example, you both want people in a particular part of the world to live free of fear and oppression more than others do. You both want the world to have less unwanted and uncared for children more than others who are apathetic. You both want all people to have a chance to make a decent living and have clean air and water. Recognize your common concerns as a way to coexist, even if your solutions are different.

Be Cordial – Any gestures – sharing food, showing an interest in family pictures or office decorations, or discussing neutral topics such as sports or recipes – will diffuse tension. When you do things for others you cannot help but empathize with them.

Don’t Gossip – Avoid at all costs badmouthing your coworker. Gossiping is a poor alternative to working things out in the workplace even when it’s work-related. By putting people down about matters unrelated to work, you demean yourself and your cause in a way that no forwarded Internet articles can repair. Bend over backwards not to attack the personal integrity or personalities of those you disagree with, especially on these issues.

However, if your differences step over a line into intimidation, endless proselytizing, or actual threats, then all of this becomes irrelevant. Management needs to step in and put their foot down. Issue-based harassment should be taken as seriously as any other.

Taking the Long View

In an election season, many opinions and deeply held views move to the forefront. You are asked by some in the media and your community to get involved and convince the undecided. There are many ways to champion the causes that matter to you most – but getting embroiled in sniping and personal vendettas about them with coworkers is the least effective for you, your career, and your cause. Thinking about ways to defuse the interpersonal tension and empathizing with your opponent without compromising your values can reduce your workplace stress and help you be a more effective coworker, employee, and person.

Fred Mael ( is an organizational psychologist who does consulting in areas such as talent retention, organizational culture, and performance management, as well as executive and work/life coaching. This article appeared in the November 2004 issue of Baltimore SmartCEO magazine (