Work-Life Strategies & Solutions

On the Evolution of Work Systems in the Digital Economy

Political Discussions in Work Settings – My Pilot Study: Thoughts on Design & Results

I’ve returned with a couple of surprise posts for today. I’ve been tinkering with a survey I designed, and it turns out I’m insane enough to fund my own pilot study. Not cheap! I took a chance on myself though, to see if I’d asked interesting new questions as I can’t find my main question of interest, or related discussions, represented anywhere on the Internet. These questions relate to what OTHER social interaction patterns might coincide with increasing political polarization and Balkanization that’s reportedly been happening.

Political discussions in work settings can pose problems because participants are obligated to continue interacting unless someone is transferred to another position, finds another job, just quits, or is laid off. It’s more difficult to walk away from others than it is in the purely social realm. Thus, people are generally expected to exercise more restraint over potentially touchy subjects and avoid disruptive, emotional outbursts that impact others.

A few respondents commented that some don’t engage in these discussions at all, either because they find political discussions inappropriate for work settings or because higher-ups discourage political discussions altogether. I’ve worked with a co-worker who didn’t know when to quit testing for my political values, so I tend to agree with these respondents. As these discussions do happen however, this topic warrants investigation.

This is a long post, but it’s comprised of screenshots of questions and results. If, after viewing this sample, you’d like to see all survey items and data in their entirety then click here.

If you’d like to add your experience to the data pool as well, click here. This survey is NOT about Trump, and I emphasize this because the focus is on long-term views of past experiences (10 to 30+ years). I’m not gauging specific political views but, rather, reactions and behaviors related to political discussions in work settings. With enough respondents, I’ll provide a separate look at these results at a later time (since this data gathering method is not as controlled as SurveyMonkey’s data collection service).

Introduction to the survey

I’ll first state that these results shouldn’t be regarded as representative of the larger population due to the small sample of 65 respondents. If I were to collect more (so that the sample size numbers in the hundreds or thousands), results could change drastically. However, these responses are interesting and helpful for informing additions or changes to the survey for a future, full-scale study.

Secondly, I have the free version of SurveyMonkey which limits you to 10 questions plus 5 extra demographic survey items designed and included by SurveyMonkey. Other limitations include structural and formatting constraints which introduced survey design flaws. I’ll point this out along the way.

Survey questions

The next 4 questions compare how respondents perceive their own attempts to find out co-workers political views (2 questions here) with how they perceive their co-workers attempts to find out their own views (2 questions here). I’ve asked these, and other questions that are seemingly unrelated to my main question of interest, to provide clues  that might explain why they answered other questions the way they did (e.g., respondents’ views about political discussions in the workplace are, what respondents’ circumstances are – are they surrounded by like-minded people?).

To explain further, people who think others are largely similar to themselves might attribute the same motives to others (e.g., “I inquire for benevolent reasons. Most people do so as well.”). Or, some might explain others’ different behavior using their own behavior as a baseline (“I don’t inquire out of respect and consideration for others. Those who inquire are rude.”). Alternatively, contradictions are possible (e.g., “I inquire because I’m open to different viewpoints while others inquire because they want to find out your views before deciding to get to know you further.”).

Circumstances might also contribute to how people perceive inquiries or the people who make them. Being surrounded by those who don’t share your politics and having them inquire about yours might be perceived differently compared to being asked by those who’re similar to you.

Question: When trying to find out what co-workers’ political views are…

Question: Which of the following is the primary reason why you try to find out co-workers political views?

As it turns out, the vast majority of my sample seem like decent people. And, as they’re granted anonymity, this encourages honesty. However if any of them need to view themselves in a positive (or negative) light then this is enough to introduce bias. This is the nature of data gathering methods that rely on self-report. If I designed a longer survey for a full-scale study, I’d include survey items that attempt to check for this tendency. The next 2 questions are about how people perceive others inquiring about their politics at work.

Question: When co-workers try to find out what my political views are…

Question: Based on your overall experience (whether at work or not), rank the reasons why people try to find out what others’ political views are. 1 = MOST common, 4 = LEAST common

The structure of the next survey question highlights a problem with SurveyMonkey’s rigid format. Ideally, for visual aesthetics and simplicity for the respondents, I’d place the “Not applicable” option just once at the end of the list of questions. The inability to do this is a constraint I’d like SurveyMonkey to resolve but, on the upside, the manner in which people respond to this item might hint that they don’t understand it (and possibly other survey items), they’re careless, and/or they’re experiencing survey fatigue. These reactions to surveys are important to check for as these form the basis for eliminating nonsensical data during the data cleaning step prior to analysis.

Question: In general, when co-workers try to find out your political views, are you…

Finally, the next question represents my main interest. Ever since someone told me that I project an ambiguous image that makes it difficult for people to tell what my political inclination is and that this might be what spurs people who’re uncomfortable with ambiguity to try to chip away at me, I’d wondered if this was related to political polarization. In a society where there are people who wish to clearly identify who is with them and who isn’t, how are people who’re difficult to read (and have made a calculated decision to remain so for reasons like putting career prospects first) treated?

Side note: Although freedom of speech and expression is important, this doesn’t mean that people owe others their political opinions. I’m just saying because people who prod others to express themselves to no end don’t seem to realize this.

Question: In your work experience, have people become…

Well, it seems this issue is worth exploring further. I’d expand on the item to include assessment of the degree of change, the meaning of “no change,” etc. It’s impossible to say whether those who selected “No change” mean to say people have always been this incredibly nosy and intolerant or that the situation is fine and has always been fine. So this is worth delving into further with measures of degree (by having respondents indicate level of nosiness and intolerance on a 5-point or maybe 7-point scale).

Do you have any thoughts on the issues presented here – regarding survey design and/or issues related to political discussions in work settings? Let me know!

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2 responses to “Political Discussions in Work Settings – My Pilot Study: Thoughts on Design & Results

  1. Thomas March 20, 2017 at 3:28 am

    I want to offer a perspective from my own (now-distant) past in the workforce. The perspective is that top management’s politics can strongly influence the tone and direction of an organization, for better or worse. My impression is that top management in most large companies is now wedded to political correctness. (It was true of the relatively small, 500-employee company from which I retired 20 years ago — and others like it in the technical services field.) I suspect that persons who are conservative find themselves less and less comfortable with the proclaimed ethos of such companies, which put “diversity” and other manifestations of political correctness ahead of quality and the return to shareholders. It seems to me that politically correct top-management policies may have the same effect in the private sector as they have had in universities, namely, driving away bright and talented conservatives. If that’s the case, and if a survey can shed light on it, the results would be noteworthy.

    • LP March 20, 2017 at 9:30 am

      Right. From what I understand, it used to be conventional wisdom to promote those with enough self-control into leadership and supervisory positions so that part of the workforce isn’t alienated by political blathering and pushiness. I’ve been told some companies still have this standard, making pushing political views a serious HR issue. However, the “social responsibility” revolution has changed the prevalence of this.

      Now there seems to be more leaders with loose lips like, as you might have heard, CEO Matt Maloney of GrubHub who was rebuked when he stepped out of bounds by asking Trump voters to resign. It’s only necessary for guidelines to inform employees’ outward behavior in order to ensure cohesiveness. Requiring people to conform in thought and feeling (as impossible as this is) is thought-policing. Many people successfully working alongside those who annoy them without giving expression to innermost thoughts and feelings. It’s likewise not necessary to make it a company-wide policy that everyone must like everyone else to work at a company – “You must try to act X” vs “You must think X thoughts.”

      That’s a good idea, and SurveyMonkey can target survey takers by political affiliation. I’m supposing questions would compare people of different political leanings in terms of their professional advancement and trace what happens (i.e., do they stay and advance or leave?, get fired or quit?) when they encounter a company culture with political values opposed to their own.

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