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Managing Controversial Opinions Online and in the Office

Dilbert on managing controversial opinions in the office

Controversial opinions as a norm?

The last eighteen months have seen a rise in controversial opinions shared via social media platforms, including business networking site, LinkedIn. A growing number of people are unfollowing or disengaging with individuals, personally or professionally, after controversial opinions are shared.

Three recurring controversial topics have social media platforms in overdrive, and a number of individuals responding viscerally:

  • Vaccination decisions stemming from vaccine hesitancy, controversial drug treatments, and the anti-vax, movement
  • Lockdowns and travel bans intended to control the spread of Covid19, but with far-reaching economic and non-Covid healthcare impacts
  • Civil Rights referring to the freedoms, liberties, and protections under the law (applicable to all people), e.g.: #MeToo and #BLM

We could easily debate the merits of these important topics; however, it may be more interesting to understand what underlying behavioural patterns and beliefs often lead to polarization between people. 

Why does this really matter? 

Through an understanding of the root causes leading to controversial topic discussion escalations in the workplace, we can learn to tap into the right skills for those moments. Because, by increasing the understanding between individuals, we can reduce polarization and the potential for workplace fallout.  

Managing controversial opinions with three key skills

We all know, through one experience or another, that relationships take work. Work made easier with a few well-honed strategic skills. 

  1. Communicating openly
  2. Using the right language
  3. Staying Grounded

By developing and using these three key skills, we are able to have meaningful conversations with anyone by respecting them as individuals regardless of the opinions held. 

Communicating openly

When controversial opinions or views surface, there is a fundamental first question to consider. Should I steer clear of this topic and choose to remain silent? 

When making this initial decision, it is important to recognize that doing so can come across as being akin to supporting it. The inherent challenge is the risk of saying something well-meaning, albeit stupid, and being publicly ridiculed or saying nothing at all at the risk of being vilified. It can be a case of choosing “between the devil and the deep blue sea”! 

That said, leaders can successfully manoeuvre through this uncertainty. It starts with engaging in open communication, meaning talking about the issues. We don’t bury them or try to hide from them. For instance, as a man, how do I offer meaningful support or advice to women dealing with #MeToo? Can men possibly know what it’s like? In reality, absent experience, we cannot truly understand. This was true for me until I heard a first-hand story from someone close to me. So how can men help in this particular example? By becoming an active ally.

So, open communication starts with actively listening. When we are unsure how to deal with a controversial matter, we can invite team members (or others) to talk about it. This sends a message that we care enough about our team members to discuss how these issues affect them. 

We all have a responsibility when dealing with social issues to acknowledge human experiences. This means being able to talk about the lack of inclusion, biases, fears, prejudices, hate, and shame. It is by acknowledging it that we develop the right, in time, to voice an opinion worth listening to. 

Which brings us to recognize that “we must first seek to understand before we seek to be understood”!

Using the right language

Having listened, we will naturally need to respond ourselves. This is where choosing our words carefully is critical. Why? Certain words or phrases can tend to push hot buttons in others, meaning a series of negative reactions surface. So, it is all about how we carefully choose the words that we use so that we do not overtly or inadvertently provoke others.

Let me explain. Using the term “fireman”, we tend to think of these roles as held by men. Similarly, for “chairman” (of a board of directors), we don’t tend to associate this role as being held by women. The word, on its own, is not inherently offensive but it does predispose us towards a male bias. 

By simply changing the words to firefighter or chairperson, we eliminate the gender bias predisposition. 

This simple example demonstrates how important it is to master our choice of words, phrases, or expressions to ensure we clearly understand what it conveys about our beliefs, values, or mindset. It is about ensuring we convey our true intent, rather than leave it open to other interpretations (and the unintended consequences).

Staying grounded

It is important to remain grounded in our core values whenever discussing controversial issues in the workplace. For instance, if you hold a no-tolerance policy for discrimination, there is no better time than now to passionately speak out against discrimination. 

For example, think of the controversy around the 2016 Oscar nominations and awards which were effectively all white – giving rise to the hashtag #oscarssowhite, or to the 2020 Oscar all-male best-director category nominations. Spike Lee speaking in 2016 from the personal perspective of an African American was powerful. Whereas, if similar passionate race relations speeches were spoken by a Caucasian director, the audience is much less able to empathize with their message. This situation is better managed by actively listening and encouraging wider discussion.

It is essential to remain grounded and measured, actively listen and then choose the right words when speaking out about the causes that authentically matter to us. Try discussing differences of opinion before you unfollow or disengage, you may just change your mind or theirs!

Your turn to share how you manage controversial opinions

Sign in to the Community Member Area or comment below to share your views on how to handle controversial opinions online or in a workplace environment.

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