Workplace Conflict Management in the Era of Trump

Today’s increasingly polarized political climate is triggering rifts in the workplace and escalating tensions, stress and conflict among workers, from factory floors to office towers across the country.

It’s likely this discord is costing American companies millions of dollars, and that conflict resolution experts could have — and perhaps should have — their hands full during the Trump presidency.

In the wake of the tense 2016 presidential campaign, employers said they hoped the strain of the election on the workplace would ease. But it didn’t. It actually may have gotten worse. Several polls and surveys have found workers are spending even more of their office hours talking — and disagreeing — about politics, and in more instances since the election, experiencing friction.

A survey by the American Psychological Association, released in May, found that 26 percent of respondents said political conversations at work made them feel tense or stressed since Trump’s election in November, up from the 17 percent who said the same during the campaign season.

Read the text-only version of this infographic here.

Observers point to a deepening of an already entrenched political divide as a key factor in workplace stress in the Trump era. A Pew Research Center study released in October found the partisan gap, already at record levels during the Obama administration, had grown even larger under Trump. The study found that, on certain political values, including attitudes on race and immigration, the gaps increased dramatically. 

Read the text-only version of this infographic here.

“Partisanship is increasing, and almost everyone works,” said Todd Dickey, an assistant professor of Public Administration and International Affairs at Syracuse’s Maxwell School teaching in the EMPA@Syracuse program. “That means there is a good chance it’s going to be coming with them to work.”

Dickey was working at the Federal Trade Commission several years ago when he noticed that workplace conflicts — possibly avoidable ones — were drags on productivity that could have been addressed more strategically. He became so fascinated thinking about how to improve communication and collaboration in the workplace that he left the commission and pursued a PhD in industrial and labor relations.

“Workplace conflict is not necessarily sexual harassment or anything that results in a lawsuit,” Dickey said. “Even if you’re in a team meeting and one employee says we should complete a task this way, and another says we should do it that way — that’s conflict. We see conflict in news and litigation, but it can be as mundane as how to finish a project.” 

Dickey said he believes legal restrictions on politics and partisanship in government workplace settings make the need for investment in organizational conflict management even more important.

“I saw, as an employee and later through my research, how debilitating disputes in the workplace can be, but also how inspiring strategic and helpful organizational conflict management can be,” he said.

Dickey wanted to understand how conflict management worked in a government setting, so he decided to study the Department of the Interior, which implemented an integrated conflict management system in 2008, widely seen as a best-practice model — the results of his research will be unveiled later this year.

"Interior was an early adopter. It's theoretically designed for any workplace," Dickey said. 

But in any work setting there are costs in missed opportunities, which could be multiplying amid the growing partisan divide. 

“Even if we’re not seeing direct conflict surface in this highly charged political environment, there may be bottled-up conflict that employees are bringing to work with them,” Dickey said. “Without the right organizational resources for addressing and engaging with those issues,  employees and teams likely will not be able to reach their full potential.”

Yet, according to research, the more obvious cases of partisan-fueled conflict are also on the rise. In a survey conducted just after Trump's inauguration, the software company BetterWorks found employees were spending more time talking about politics than their jobs, and nearly half of the employees it surveyed said they’d heard a political discussion escalate into an argument.

Trump’s policies and positions have given workers plenty of fodder that courts deep personal beliefs or positions: a ban on transgender people in the military, a Department of Justice review of affirmative action policies at colleges that “discriminate against white applicants,” a ban on people from mostly Muslim countries from entering the country.

These measures, whether ultimately successful or not, could contribute to unease in the workplace. Cindy-Ann Thomas, a principal at Littler Mendelson, the country’s largest labor law firm, says the new political tone has emboldened some workers to make more divisive comments.

“I don’t necessarily believe there’s more tension, as much as I believe there’s more license to express those tensions,” she said. “There’s a lot more comfort in expressing views that would normally have not been regarded as appropriate, under the umbrella of, ‘My president has said this.’ Because the filters are off, there is a lot less apprehension around the ability to share what is on one’s mind.”

“I saw, as an employee and later through my research, how debilitating disputes in the workplace can be, but also how inspiring strategic and helpful organizational conflict management can be.”

— Todd Dickey, an assistant professor of Public Administration and International Affairs at Syracuse’s Maxwell School teaching in the EMPA@Syracuse program

This expression of political tensions could have destructive consequences beyond obvious unpleasantness. It could cost them real dollars.

Research has shown conflict in the workplace cost American companies more than $359 billion in paid hours in 2008. Research of Fortune 1000 companies has found that executives spend as much as 13 percent of their time — seven weeks per year — resolving employee conflicts. The same study found that absenteeism, lost productivity and turnover resulting from conflicts in the workplace cost more than $6 million per company each year.

Numbers like these should get the attention of executives who might consider preventive conflict-resolution efforts before tensions arise.

“It’s important for organizations to think proactively in investing in this area,” Dickey said. “We often see seemingly small disputes mushroom into big workplace conflicts. But investing in resources and training — you’re potentially transforming the way conflict is addressed at a later time. It can really change the dynamic.”

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Citation for this content: ExecutiveMPA@Syracuse, The Online Executive Master of Public Administration from Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs.