As the Israel-Hamas war continues to escalate, so too do workplace tensions over the conflict, as workers on all sides of the issue feel unsupported, censored, targeted, or abandoned by their colleagues and leaders. To understand how organizations can address this internal conflict, we spoke with Nour Kteily, a professor of management and organizations at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Business and the co-director of the university’s Dispute Resolution Research Center. Here’s an excerpt from our conversation, edited for length and clarity:
Are there any principles or best practices organizations can use to set up ground rules for discussing the current conflict—or other politically charged topics at work—in a healthy, or at least not harmful, way?
I’ve written about a company called Harmon Brothers, whose CEO did not want to stifle conversation of politics. But he did set up a rule that if you’re going to post a link to any political content that you want other people to read, instead of just being able to post a link, you would also have to film a short video that summarized what the content was about and explained why it was worth the attention of other people in the company. And if you wanted to respond to a video like that, you had to film a video yourself. This does two things: One, it adds some friction, so it makes it a little bit more costly to people. If you’re going to engage, you’re going to have to do a little bit more work than just put up a link and let that be the end of it. But for the people that actually want to engage, it potentially elevates the level of discourse because it’s forcing people to convey more about what it is about the content they’re sharing that they think is valuable, and engage in potentially more meaningful conversation.
One of the things that I’ve advocated for is helping people to understand some of what we know about the psychological biases that cause us to struggle to understand the perspective of others. One famously is called naive realism, which is basically the bias to believe, ‘I’m not biased. I believe that my view on the world is the correct view on the world, and anyone who disagrees with me isn’t just a reasonable person who happened to see the world differently. It must be that they’re cognitively biased, lazy, or just wrong.’
So it’s actually quite important for companies to give their employees some training early on about, where do disagreements arise from? How might all of us sometimes be talking past one another and drawing assumptions and conclusions about the underlying intentions of other people? Then actually help people think through effective conflict-resolution mechanisms that the company has set in place when there are disagreements. How do we actually express this agreement effectively? What are the appropriate channels by which to do so? All of those are things that companies ought to be intentional about, so that you’re not on the back foot, you’re not just having to react when something occurs like this, whether it be a political dispute or other form of dispute at work. There is a process, a playbook that people know and have learned and expect.
Charter Pro members can read a full transcript of our conversation, including how managers can encourage greater empathy and the role of interfaith employee-resource groups.