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Is political righteousness killing your corporate culture?

5 min read


Everyone needs at least one diversion that makes friends and family go, “Really? You spend your time on that?” Mine at the moment is debunking an urban myth that is making the rounds. Maybe you’ve seen it.

There are multiple versions, but this one concerns a white woman (the story makes a point of describing her as being white and in her 50s) who obnoxiously objects to being assigned a plane seat next to a black man. The flight crew decides to relocate one of these two passengers to first class — and it chooses the black passenger. Everyone applauds with approval that this hater gets her just deserts. (The story usually comes with a picture of passengers taking a cellphone picture of something going on toward the front of the plane. A photo adds that certain verisimilitude that validates all Internet stories.)

It’s always served up as a feel-good story of how racism gets its comeuppance. But when you stop to consider all of its components, you quickly see that it propagates racism (and sexism and ageism). It’s actually a little bit of poison wrapped up in tasty sugarcoating.

Ensuing hater comments reveal the nastiness of this narrative. Those who comment are equally racist, sexist or ageist — and completely oblivious to the irony of their bigotry. That’s where I jump in and post the Snopes link to tell people that it’s a myth. And, oh, by the way, is anyone bothered by comments spewing race-based hate at the white woman in the story? And why does she have to be in her 50s?

The result is predictable: The groupthink group turns on me like a flight of starlings shifting direction en masse. I’ve been called the most exotic of names for the simple crime of stripping naked a falsehood, and for pointing out that the story propagates the same anti-social behavior that the group says it’s against.

I’ve come to expect that response. But two sentiments have stood out most to me: “I don’t care if the story is true or not. It’s a wonderful story, and I’m sharing!” and — the one that scares me the most — “Martha, you think too much.” And that’s when I think, “Oh, my gosh! These people have jobs where their bosses expect them to actually, you know, think!”

Whatever happened to the discipline of critical thinking? Why is it that people really don’t care that they’re being lied to? And they don’t mind saying so either. When challenged to look at something slightly differently, they react violently, even anti-socially.

Groupthink thinkers would rather feel righteous than be right, making them easy marks for anyone who wants to influence them — and, by extension, your company. You are counting on your people to bring their best thinking to work every day, not only lock step, self-righteous passion.

I wonder how rising heat under the political pot will influence workplace team culture and thinking in coming months. It’s going to affect jobs and careers. It already has in isolated instances.

Two examples: This spring, a school custodian was fired because a couple of teachers didn’t like a political placard she was carrying in the back of her car. So they complained to her boss. A few years ago, someone asked The New York Times Magazine’s Ethicist columnist whether it was OK not to recommend qualified candidates for an open position because their resumes revealed political leanings opposite those of the writer. The hiring person couldn’t stomach the idea of working so closely with a member of the opposite camp. (That person didn’t wait for The Ethicist’s reply. A published update reported that candidates with opposing political principles were not recommended. The rationale: Only a few people could be hired, so those with like-minded viewpoints got the nod, even though political views were not important to the position.)

If you were the CEO of that organization, how happy would you be that the absolute best talent slipped away because your recruiter decided to staff your operation exclusively with the politically simpatico?

It would be reasonable to say that politics has no appropriate place in the workplace. And, in other years, that might be a more easily enforced policy. But I’m thinking this year is going to be different — especially because so much of the political battle revolves around the economy, jobs and health care. Anyone who takes politics seriously can’t help but take it personally. And that’s bound to spill over into workplace relationships.

Question: As a leader, what is your appropriate role in sustaining a collegial workplace as employees become more politically passionate during the next few months?

Martha Finney is a leadership consultant and the publisher of HR Career Success, a website dedicated to helping human resources professionals build world-class careers. Finney is the author of 18 books on employee engagement, HR and career management. Her newest book, “The Truth About Getting the Best From People,” will be released in December. E-mail her.