How to heal post-election angst at work

December 26, 2016

Employers can foster a shared sense of empathy and compassion after an emotional and divisive election, and rally people around common values, say Ross professors.

The U.S. presidential election, which followed a long and often divisive campaign season, produced raw emotions that can leave a bitter residue in our daily interactions — work, family, social gatherings, and social media.

But the problem need not be viewed in partisan terms. When there’s lingering angst on both sides, workplaces can build a sense of shared values if people are willing to break away from the usual corporate norms and take some steps toward encouraging empathy and compassion.

As people process their thoughts ahead of the end-of-year holidays, it’s a good time to start some new routines that help people thrive, say Ross Professor Jane Dutton and Lecturer Monica Worline. After all, people need to work together effectively to get the job done, no matter their political leanings.

“We need to remind ourselves that even among people who hold very different views, there can still be a lot of common ground,” says Worline. “Organizations can point people toward shared values and a sense of shared purpose.”

Taking a look back at the year, with positive achievements recognized, is a good opportunity to emphasize company culture and values. Often the values that make organizations thrive — teamwork, equity, collaboration, and stewardship — are things people cling to during times of difficulty outside of work. They are also values shared by people of various backgrounds and political persuasions.


“Even if people feel their political culture is divided, it can help them feel valued and resilient to have a shared culture with a clear purpose at work,” Worline says.

Dutton and Worline, both faculty members at the Center for Positive Organizations at Ross and authors of the forthcoming book Awakening Compassion at Work: The Quiet Power That Elevates People and Organizations, say this is not an easy task. It takes effort and courage to break habits and establish new norms. But taking a few steps now can help set the right tone going into a new year.

First, look at how people are connected socially. “The connections between people are a crucial part of the social architecture of compassion in organizations,” Worline says. “When people feel more connected to one another, they are more likely to care about each other’s well-being and are more likely to share information and trust each other when divisions or difficulties arise.”

Political divisions and bitterness can split people apart, exacerbating the typical silos that form in organizations around functions and roles. Part of awakening compassion in this instance is to watch for people or groups who may be isolated, and to create opportunities to bring people together in shared actions.

Corporate social responsibility routines and volunteer projects are one method that companies can use to bring people from many functions, roles, backgrounds, and viewpoints together during this time of year.

Ask yourself if there are community-building activities to rally all employees around. A major automaker, for example, has engaged its employees around work for Habitat for Humanity and Forgotten Harvest, allowing for would-be office time to be spent working in teams for these organizations. Corporate volunteering can re-energize people and reconnect them with each other as well as with some shared values in their communities, and can also become a source for pride and recognizing the work of the employees company-wide.


“The more you can get people connected and talking to each other, the better you can combat these feelings of isolation and foster compassion,” says Dutton.

Finally, make use of everyday interactions and your organization’s meeting or gathering routines to create space for people to share some reflections with others without making it a mandate.

The beginning and ending of meetings are opportune times for these brief moments of reflection. Managers and leaders can begin meetings by asking each person to share briefly some source of pride at work or a source of celebration and accomplishment. The last five minutes of a meeting can be dedicated to reflections about teamwork and ideas that could improve esprit de corps.

The end-of-year letter or new-year message from leaders is another space where you can invite reflection and post interesting questions about the future.

These moments of reflection and sharing are best when they are prompted by questions that evoke thoughtful responses.

“It’s an open-ended invitation that can become part of a routine in meetings and opens the door to compassion,” Dutton says. “That’s because what emerges is honest and usually leads to very meaningful dialogue. It’s important to encourage sharing via inquiry. Thoughtful reflection questions make the discussion authentic.”

Worline adds, “True engagement in a dialogue that is ongoing helps managers and leaders avoid tone-deaf management talk and gives them the chance to really listen to the point of view of employees.”

While each of these steps in themselves are small, taken together they help people connect with each other and build trust and empathy as they work toward a common goal — a welcome respite for many during an angst-ridden time.

“Workplaces are often diverse communities. We work with people who have different backgrounds, training, and levels of experience than we do,” says Worline. “When workplaces become toxic, they amplify the value judgments and stereotypes that go along with those differences. But workplaces that are organized around common goals, values of shared humanity, and a shared purpose set the stage for discovering how we can work together. When we add honest dialogue and the opportunity to be truly seen and heard at work, people do collaborate better and take care of one another when suffering strikes. These are the aspects of compassion that help us all engage in work on a healthier level.”

Originally published as a Ross Thought in Action article.