Once upon a time, you were taught to avoid potentially controversial topics with clients such as national politics, particularly in office environments and social settings. In other words, there were unspoken boundaries that one would not cross as it was both impolite and bad for business.
Today, social dynamics have changed and influenced communication which has dramatically affected standards for corporate etiquette. As such, conversation that was once taboo is finding its way into the workplace and on social media as never before, regardless of company policies and guidelines.
Making matters worse is a growing intolerance for differing opinions and ideas, especially when it comes to national politics and other controversial issues of the day. This often creates discomfort amongst your business allies and can be downright divisive.
Complicating matters further is our global economy, where impoliteness and a lack of respect can snowball and damage your brand and business opportunities.
My experience as an international consultant, spanning Toronto to Dubai, has provided me with a wealth of perspectives. And one of the lessons I’ve learned is that you do not build business relationships by alienating your colleagues, business partners or customers. Successful collaboration is built on value exchange and harmony.
In this new reality in which no subject is off limits, you must carefully manage your communications with current and potential business associates. This includes holding your own emotions in check when others around you may be debating political, social or cultural topics.
Facebook aside, even LinkedIn has adapted to this new social media dynamic and you may be seeing status updates and shares that would seem out of place just one year ago. It’s all the more important for you to cultivate rather than alienate your customers, friends and business associates.
Why Is This Topic So Timely?
There are innumerable examples of people who have lost jobs, were passed over for promotions and even ostracized for something they shared in person or on social media that either offended someone or was taken out of context. Like trying to put the proverbial genie back into the bottle, you cannot retract what is already out in the open. Similar to a ticking time bomb, your words and opinions can come back to haunt you at precisely the wrong time.
So, what do you do? How do you manage your reputation and maintain your good brand in an increasingly contentious world in which there are no longer traditional boundaries?
When dealing with questionable situations, or social media, consider the following risks if you engage:
- Damage to present and potential business relationships
- Tarnished image to hiring managers browsing your social media history
- Undermining of active business deals
- Harm to domestic and international brand identity
- Exposing yourself and/or brand to boycotts and lawsuits
After considering the above potential risks, you will be in a better position to know if you should engage or disengage.
My personal recommendation is to avoid commenting verbally or in writing if the controversial topic will (1) alienate those people who are important to you, or (2) damage your reputation.
If You Feel You Must Speak Up
Establish commonality: To prevent the conversation from getting overheated, neutralize a contentious dialogue by finding something to agree with. Look for where you are both aligned. Say: “Let’s agree that we both have strong feelings because we both care very deeply about (fill in).”
Be genuinely curious: Frame your dialogue as a chance to learn from each other. The following framing demonstrates respect. Say: “I have my own opinion but I am curious about why you feel so differently. Would you be open to explaining?”
Share your perspective: Reassure the person that you are not wanting a debate nor change their mind. You just want to be heard. Say: “Would you be open to hearing my perspective?”
Politely Exit: At the first sign of risky conversation that triggers you or detracts from your business focus, be politely honest. Say: “Thank you”, which acknowledges the person. At this point, assess if it is possible and worth changing the topic or simply excuse yourself from the conversation, “Pardon me, I need to go check on something.”
Regardless Of The Setting
Understanding the risks and rewards of taking a stance on political and social issues can be difficult, if not impossible. Regardless of the setting in which you are interacting, pause, evaluate the implications of your words, and move away if there’s any chance of your comments coming back to bite you in the future. Remember this, kind words build rapport and relationships, while harsh words alienate and tear down.
Do your job. Be amazing at it. Make yourself memorable for the right reasons. Be remarkable!