Fiona Smith Columnist

Fiona writes on workplace issues, including management, psychology, workplace design, human resources and recruitment. She is a former Work Space editor at The Australian Financial Review and has also covered property, technology, architecture and general news.

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Office politics: Don’t lose your head

Published 08 October 2012 12:22, Updated 16 April 2013 13:30

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Office politics: Don’t lose your head

Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott have politics in their genes - literally. Illustration: Sam Bennett

Talking politics in the office is a dangerous pastime. If you express any strong opinion, you are likely to be offending at least half the people within earshot.

That is, unless your workplace is divided along party lines: the left-wing human resources people huddling with the marketing department, while the lawyers and accountants gather to write their supportive emails to radio shock jock Alan Jones in their lunch hour. Politics seems to be getting increasingly extreme and vituperative but the one thing you should not do when a colleague utters something you find politically outrageous is to try to change their mind.

Arguing the point is pretty useless. Political persuasion is one of those aspects of personality that is bred into us – about 40 per cent of it is genetic and the rest is likely to have been formed by experiences.

So, logic and reason won’t change another person’s orientation. An aspect of psychology, called confirmation bias, means people tend to listen only to things that confirm what they already think.

Psychologists in the US have done a large amount of work on studying where people get their politics from and their findings are interesting.

Those identified as “liberal” in the US (left-leaning here) tend to have more activity in parts of the brain known as the insula and anterior cingulate cortex. These regions help deal with cognitive conflict and in processing conflicting information.

Conservatives (right-leaning) have more activity in the amygdala, the brain’s “fear centre” or threat detector.

According to an article in Live Science, the findings suggest liberals can more easily tolerate uncertainty, “which might be reflected in their shades-of-gray policy positions”. “In the US, those typically include being pro-choice and lenient on illegal immigration,” says the author, Adam Hadhazy.

“Conservatives, meanwhile, have a more binary view of threats versus non-threats. Again, such a predisposition could be extended to policy positions, such as being pro-life and stricter on the immigration issue.”

However, as tempting as it may be to ascribe all political views to biology, a professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego, Darren Schreiber , urges caution.

“The idea that we’re somehow hardwired [in regard to our political ideologies] is totally inadequate.”

While studies show that 40 per cent of our politics are inherited, more than half of our ideological influences come from our experiences.

“[Political identity is] really clearly not a story of genes or environment but their interaction,” says Schreiber.

Another misunderstanding about political orientation is that people start off as young radicals and become more conservative as they age.

However, research from the University of Vermont disputes this.

Comparing surveys of various age groups taken over a span of more than 30 years, sociologists found that in general, Americans’ opinions veer towards the liberal as they age.

According to Clara Moskowitz in Live Science: “People might find an average 60-year-old to be more conservative than an average 30-year-old ... but beware of extrapolating a trend. The older person, for example, might have started off even more conservative than he or she is now.”

So, if you find yourself about to step onto an office-politics-landmine, careers writer Ritika Trikha has some tips:

  1. Don’t change the subject too abruptly. It’s okay to chat with them—just keep your guard up. As soon as the conversation gets heated, it is time to move on to something safer.
  2. Ask questions: Avoid being opinionated and listen to their answers. “This will make them feel appreciated and keep the heat off of you.”
  3. Avoid contentious debates. Remember to be the bigger person. Neutralising phrases include: “I see where you’re coming from” or “This is why I enjoy speaking with you, we have such different perspectives. Thank you for explaining your point of view.”
  4. Make a graceful exit. After the conversation has cooled down and fizzled, make your exit. “Oh, look at the time. I must go prepare for my 10 ‘o clock. I’ll catch you later”.

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