Stop Talking About Politics at Work

New research suggests it hurts your effectiveness more than you think.

Posted Aug 13, 2019

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Maybe you don’t. Hopefully, you don’t.

I was raised by parents in a generation where discussions of politics or money were taboo to all but very close friends. (Of course, I’ve abandoned that part about money.) At the same time, though, I’ve kept to my faith that discussions of politics can be outright rude in social settings and in the workplace.

But at this point, in much of the developed world, the political climate has gotten so tense that all of us have likely had that awkward experience with a loud-mouthed political ideologue who doesn’t realize—or doesn’t care—that most of the room disagrees with him. (That, or most of the room was raised by the same generation as my parents.)

But recent research suggests that talking about politics at work, even knowing the political opinions of your coworkers, could actually have a detrimental effect on you and your work.

A quintet of researchers from London and the U.S. (two countries facing a pretty big political divide right now) recruited over 150 participants into an online study that required interaction with other participants. The task at hand was categorizing shapes. Participants would be rewarded for how many shapes they could accurately categorize.

Before that, however, participants were given an opportunity to learn whether their fellow lab rats had a) similar political opinions to them and b) their skill in the past at learning about geometric shapes. Only one of those two elements was relevant to the next task: choosing whom to work with and sorting shapes.

Yet as they watched participants go to work, the researchers found that individuals were much more likely to want to collaborate with and learn from people with similar political opinions and that they were more influenced by people with similar political opinions. This is despite the fact that political opinions have nothing to do with one's prior knowledge of geometry or their shape-categorizing abilities.

The researchers attribute this to a phenomenon they call “epistemic spillover.” Similar to a halo effect, we have a tendency to believe that with outstanding skill or knowledge in one field extends to other fields unrelated to that one. For example, we might assume that someone with skills in making financial predictions is therefore skilled in predictions and decision-making of all kinds.

Epistemic spillover goes one step further, however, since there is no underlying skill that participants observed and then extended out to the task at hand. They just agreed with them about who to vote for.

There’s no skill involved in holding a political opinion. It’s just an opinion.

So what does this mean for you and your work?

Shape categorization is likely not what you do at the office every day. But these results suggest a subtle bias at play in all of us. And that bias explains a lot of other halo effects and spillovers we see… including at work. In my book, Friend Of A Friend, we explored how people are subtly but consistently moving toward self-similar groups of people and the detrimental effect being in an echo chamber has on your decision making.

If we’re likely to assume that people who agree with us are therefore smarter or better at any task, then are we likely to seek collaborations with or help from only those people with whom we share a party affiliation?

I don’t want to know. 

And that’s why I don’t want to know who you voted for either.

This article originally appeared as an episode of the DailyBurk.