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Opinion | How to talk politics at the workplace

Shouldn’t we try and address our own biases about safe topics for discussion?

Warren Buffet and Charlie Munger disagree politically but are friends.
Warren Buffet and Charlie Munger disagree politically but are friends. (Photo: Reuters)

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Warren Buffet and Charlie Munger are close friends and business partners who have built Berkshire Hathaway, one of the world’s largest public companies. Buffet happens to be a Democrat and Munger, a Republican. They have never had an argument and finish each other’s sentences or respond with their signature phrase, “I have nothing to add to what he said.”

From this, it might seem that it is easy to disagree politically, be friends and have a functional professional relationship. But we all know that is not the case.

Recently, Munger was on live television and said both political parties in the US have “wings full of idiots”. He was alluding to Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s suggestion that modern monetary theory (MMT), which holds that government doesn’t need to balance the budget, should be discussed. Buffet has already criticized MMT. How is it that two vocal business leaders who have diametrically opposite political views arrive at the same conclusion? It is simple. Buffet is not an average Democrat and Munger isn’t a stereotypical Republican.

As much as we want, our co-workers are unlikely to be like Munger or Buffet so should we discuss politics at work? If yes, how? If not, why not? I asked the Network Capital community, 63% of whom said politics should be discussed at work and 71% said they actively discuss politics during elections.

INSEAD professor Craig Smith, in an article Companies Can’t Avoid Politics—and Shouldn’t Try To, said the days when companies could hide behind a veneer of neutrality are over. Stakeholders and employees look for transparency, consistency, materiality and leadership in modern organizations. They hold companies accountable because business institutions don’t exist in isolation; they reflect society. Perhaps that is why many millennials feel politics cannot be disassociated from work.

According to LinkedIn’s culture report, nine out of 10 millennials would take a pay cut to work at politically, socially and ecologically conscious companies whose values align with their own.

Millennials spend upwards of 12 hours in office and want to be able to bring their true selves to work. Isn’t it fair that they have the freedom and flexibility to talk about whatever they deem appropriate, including but not limited to politics? It is important to note that freedom and flexibility to talk politics doesn’t mean abandoning reason and indulging in shouting matches like our news anchors. That’s why the real question isn’t whether we should talk politics at work or not. It is how we should talk about politics and work with colleagues who choose to express different viewpoints. Instead of legislating them, shouldn’t we try and address our own biases about safe topics for discussion?

Not having a political opinion or choosing not to express it isn’t an achievement. It is a choice. People should feel free to be as political or apolitical as they please as long as it doesn’t negatively affect overall organizational productivity.

In business school, one of my learning group mates was a Chinese investment banker whose views on Tibet left me gasping in disbelief. It was uncomfortable to begin with, but we made a genuine effort to understand each other’s perspective. She stuck to her point of view and I stuck to mine, but we did forge a strong friendship premised on mutual respect. Working with her added new dimensions to my learning, negotiating with initial discomfort strengthened my empathy and dealing with complexities of diverging opinions enhanced my problem solving skills. All this happened for two reasons. First, we talked about politics and second, we talked about politics the way politicians don’t but should.

Millennial Matters is a column that recalibrates the skills needed to survive and find meaning in the workplace of tomorrow.

Utkarsh Amitabh is founder of Network Capital, a global peer mentoring community and a WEF Global Shaper.

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