This past month, millions of Republicans and Democrats flocked to the polls to vote in the U.S. presidential primary. Elections bring out the best and the worst in people -- our most idealistic aspirations and our most divisive impulses.
I recently caught up with a friend who’d just attended her first caucus. Arriving at her polling place early, she eagerly took her spot in a line that was quickly winding around the block. When she and her neighbors gathered for the straw poll, she said she was borderline euphoric. “I was so excited to be around a group of like-minded neighbors instead of those lunatics on the other side of the aisle!” (as you can see, she has some pretty strong opinions).
But when it came time to vote, she told me, something strange happened. It was like a switch flipped, as each voter pronounced their preference, the people she had adored just minutes ago became either “more amazing” (if they voted for her candidate) or “total morons” (if they didn’t). She was shocked by how quickly her opinions about her neighbors changed based simply on the candidate they chose.
Human beings are social creatures who derive important aspects of our identity from the groups we belong to: our sports teams, our schools, our political parties, etc. But being part of a group also creates powerful dividing lines. To use my friend’s terminology, when other people share our love for a team, graduate from the same school or vote for our candidate, they are “amazing,” while fans of other teams, graduates of rival schools and those with opposing political beliefs become “morons.” As I told the New York Times during the last presidential election, we humans love to put each other in boxes.
Both at work and in life, whether we label someone as an “in-group” or “out-group” member has powerful consequences for our beliefs and behaviors. To better understand this, let’s briefly review one of the most famous “experiments” in the history of psychology. Following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Iowa schoolteacher Jane Elliot wanted to help her third graders better understand prejudice. She began her experiential lesson by dividing the seven year olds into two groups based on their eye color. Blue-eyed children, she told them, were better in every way than brown-eyed children. Brown-eyed children were stupid and violent and would have to wear fabric collars so they could be easily identified.
In less than five minutes, Elliot watched her “marvelous, wonderful, cooperative children turn into nasty vicious discriminating little third graders.” The following day, she turned the tables, telling them that she’d made a mistake and that brown-eyed children were actually better than blue-eyed children. The results were exactly the same when the shoe was on the other foot.
Elliot’s study provides devastating evidence of how readily we vilify out-groups, especially in the face of stereotypes. Given America’s widening political gap, it’s not surprising that liberals and conservatives stereotype one another. One study, for example reported that Democrats think Republicans are more conservative than they really are and that the reverse is also true. Interestingly, these perceived differences have been shown to be even more salient when we feel threatened (i.e., “If Candidate X wins, I am moving to Canada.”). Though Republicans’ and Democrats’ behavior isn’t exactly the same as the blue-eyed and brown-eyed children, I find the parallels to be quite striking.
Related: Why Politics and Business Don't Mix
This is the precise reason we shouldn’t talk politics at work. As soon as we learn that a person belongs to a different political party-- or is even supporting a different candidate in our own party -- it’s hard not to view them through that lens. I have a long-time client whom I adore and respect. The subject of the election came up and he made an offhanded comment that revealed his political leanings. Much to my horror, they were the opposite of mine. Did this change my entire view of him? Of course not -- give me some credit. But did my primal instincts tempt me to see him differently? Before I consciously realized I was doing it, I began to wonder how such a smart person could have such incorrect political views.
Especially during such a tense election, how can you navigate these rough waters at work without hurting your relationships or your career? My strongest advice is to simply avoid talking politics, even in a casual way. I know, I know. It’s really hard and the temptation is intense. But here’s the thing: if you learn anything you don’t like, you can never un-know it. With my client, for instance, I’ve had to devote conscious effort to move past this new information in our work together. Resisting the urge to act like Mrs. Elliot’s third graders has been more difficult than I care to admit; and boy, do I wish I could go back in time and change the subject before the waters got choppy.
But what if your coworkers, employees, or worst of all your boss, insist on talking politics at work? Thankfully, all is not lost, and you can use one surprisingly simple approach: find a superordinate goal.
More than 10 years before Jane Elliot’s study, husband and wife team Muzafer and Carolyn Sherif conducted an experiment with boys at an Oklahoma summer camp. They divided them into two groups and pitted them against one another in a series of winner-takes-all competitions. Predictably, inter-group discord ensued. Their sentiments were so negative that they started to engage in something called a "garbage war” (with 11-year-old boys one can only imagine).
The Sherifs wanted to see what would bring the two groups back together, so they introduced a new element -- water shortages at the camp. Despite the boys’ cross-group contempt, if they wanted to survive, they had no choice but to come together to accomplish this shared or superordinate goal. And indeed, the boys came together, cooperating to solve the problem. The dynamic changed so much that both groups asked to ride home on the same bus.
Back to you at work: if you discover that a colleague has a wildly different view than you do, it’s easy to see them as irrational. But if you did, you’d be forgetting one simple fact -- their views are based on different, yet equally fair, beliefs. Remind yourself that and focus on finding a superordinate goal -- maybe you turn the conversation back to a shared project or discuss a value you both hold. Even if all you can agree on is that you both want the best for the country, that’s something.
Learning to navigate the choppy office waters of the presidential election will put you ahead of the game. You’ll avoid the collateral damage -- and who knows? It might even make hanging around the water cooler downright relaxing.