How to Hold a Passionate, Contrarian Viewpoint at Work – Without Losing Your Job
Over the past few days, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about James Damore – the Google engineer fired a while ago for a memo that criticized a lot of Google’s cultural values around gender diversity.
While I don’t agree with his points, one of the key issues this memo raises for me is how and if it’s safe to bring all of who you are to work – if colleagues or your company itself fundamentally disagree with some components of who you are or what you believe. The truth is, depending on the issue you feel strongly about, it may not be safe for you to speak openly about what you believe in your workplace.
As a nonprofit leader and a friend to people with varying political views, I can empathize with the feeling of not agreeing with a norm in your workplace or the country writ-large, and not knowing how to be authentic about what you believe – while keeping your job and protecting the critical relationships you need to do your job well. I can only imagine that gets even harder when you hear people expressing their (common) opinion about the topic, and you don’t feel safe to share yours.
If you’re in that situation, I want to offer you a few ideas about how to negotiate this tension in a way that doesn’t cost you your job, and still helps you sleep at night knowing that you’re showing up authentically.
Raise your concerns in a way that’s respectful to your workplace norms and culture.
If you want to raise concerns about a one-sided approach in your office to a political or cultural issue, do it with tact. If it’s a sticky issue, shock and awe in an internal mass-email, message board, or public pop-off is almost always the wrong move.
Instead, think about:
- How to talk to a leader you trust privately about your concerns.
- If you can go to HR directly to ask for support addressing the issue, so you can get coaching and guidance on what’s appropriate.
Clearly define your need in raising these issues and whether your workplace is the right place to get that need met.
What’s your intention in bringing this issue up? Being heard? Encouraging your colleagues to keep political or hot-button topics private at work or to be more respectful of opposing views? To have rigorous debate about these issues with people from the other side? To prove you’re right or at least that “your side” has legitimate reasons to feel how you feel? To ask your employer to be more neutral about political issues, so you feel less excluded/isolated as divergent voice?
If you realize that your aim is more about having rigorous dialogue with your colleagues, think critically about whether that need has to be met at work and if your workplace culture will support that kind of dialogue in the issue area that’s important to you. If not, my suggestion is to find another vehicle to get that need met.
If the need is about creating a safe work environment for people who think differently, that sounds like a great opportunity to engage your HR leader or another leader you trust around your concerns.
[Related: There's Power In Being An Empathetic Leader]
If you feel it’s unsafe to share your opinion, develop boundaries for conversations around the issue and enforce them.
Decide how you will respond if the issue is brought up and you are asked for your opinion. Here are three approaches:
- The firm check: Verbally name your boundary around this conversation topic, and don’t address it further. For example, you might say: "Thanks for asking. Just a quick heads up: I don’t address my political views at work. I want to make sure that everyone I work with – regardless of their personal or political beliefs – feels safe partnering with me. Totally not a big deal, but just wanted you to have a heads up about why I wasn’t contributing on this topic."
- The bob-and-weave: Change topics or graciously exit the conversation. For example: 1) "You know what, before I forget, I wanted to ask you about [topic or question]…" or 2) "I wish we could chat a little longer, but I have to [get back to work, grab lunch, call x person back]…"
- The strong, silent type: Listen to the conversation, but choose not to contribute. If asked, say: "At this point, I’m just enjoying learning from you all. If there’s something I want to add, I’ll contribute later."
If you do feel it’s safe to share your opinion, be thoughtful about tone, language, and generally framing it as an opinion and not a fact.
Here are some approaches that I’ve seen land well.
Name your apprehension in sharing your opinion directly, so people handle it a little more gently than they would otherwise.
For example, you might say:
I’ll be honest with you, I see this issue a little differently, but I’m frankly a bit nervous to contribute given how strongly this group feels on the topic. Is this a safe place to express an alternative point of view? If not, I’m totally happy to listen in or to rejoin the conversation later.
Don’t name your specific viewpoints, but do share that you feel differently than the group on this issue.
For example, you might say one of the following:
- "I understand the premise of what you’re saying, but how do you reconcile that with [this issue/fact, etc.]?"
- "I can see what you’re saying, but the truth is, I see this issue a bit differently…"
- "I’m a bit conflicted on this issue, but I’d like more time to research and explore the topic offline before I contribute…"
Express your curiosity and desire to engage and really listen to each other, to better understand each other’s perspective.
For example, you might say:
- "I definitely come at this issue from another perspective, but I’m very curious about what you just said… Can you tell me more about [open-ended question]?"
- "As a colleague whose viewpoints I respect, I want you to know that while I may see a few points differently, I am very open to listening to an alternative perspective. It likely won’t change my mind, but I am eager to learn about how other people think about this issue."
Most importantly, when you approach these sensitive workplace issues, know that you need to be intentional about how to broach them in a way that protects your standing at work and the relationships you’ve worked over time to build. You may have the opportunity to speak freely at work, but that doesn’t guarantee a positive result in response to what you say.
It’s my hope you take a lesson from the Google memo experience and this article, so you’ll be able to show up authentically, without offending your colleagues or having to pack up your desk.
Melanie Rivera is a management coach, consultant, and trainer whose job is to work with leaders to create the conditions for gender and race-diverse teams to thrive at work.
Have more questions? Follow up with the expert herself.
As a People Operations executive and management trainer and coach, I have helped leaders up and down the East Coast maximize their effectiveness, call their teams and leaders to higher standards of around race and equity (without feeding a toxic "call-out culture") and rethink people policies and practices that pushed great employees out or contributed to an unhealthy culture. I founded Breaker28 in 2016 to help nonprofits and businesses create dynamic, inclusive, and high-performing organizations... Continue Reading
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