I’m the lead for a small team that has brief daily morning “stand-up meetings” — usually around five to ten minutes of checking in and updating one another about what we’re working on that day. During the pandemic, we’ve been mostly remote, so these take place via video chat and have, predictably, gotten a little more social and longer than normal.
One of our team members is a passionate activist who is very involved in social justice, protesting, and politics. Most of us are engaged to some extent, but this is her main focus in life outside of work. Personally, I agree with a lot of her views and think it’s great that she’s so involved in addressing social inequities. The problem is that she has a tendency to launch into sociopolitical topics first thing, which can either derail or distract from what is supposed to be a focused and short check-in. It also makes it difficult to shift things back to work without a lot of awkwardness — who wants to be the person to launch into work updates after she informs us of a police shooting or another emotionally charged topic?
By and large, the rest of the team is sympathetic to these positions, but where is the line between shared social and political concerns and being a captive audience? I already spend a good amount of time thinking about, talking about, and taking political action outside of work, and I find it difficult to concentrate on my job when these topics come up first thing in the morning. Is there a good way to ask her to cut down on the news talk in these meetings, without coming across as an insensitive jerk?
Not only is there a way to ask her to stop the political talk, but as the team lead, you have an obligation to the rest of the group to do it.
I don’t blame you at all for being unsure about how to go about it! It can feel tricky to shut down this kind of talk, because of course you don’t want to come across as silencing discussions about social justice, police violence, or other crucial issues. But it’s okay to say that work meetings are for work talk and that they aren’t the right place for political conversations, no matter how important those conversations are to have.
Of course, it’s true that you probably talk about other nonwork topics at those meetings — how people’s weekends were, someone’s new cat, what you’re binge-watching on Netflix, and so forth — but politics can be divisive and exhausting in a way few other topics are. It’s especially problematic at work, because people won’t always feel comfortable speaking up if they disagree, or if they’re emotionally depleted and just want the conversation to move on.
And just wanting the conversation to move on is a really common response. A lot of people are genuinely burned out by politics right now — even politics they agree with. Political issues can also be deeply painful or frightening for many people, especially right now, when much of what’s being debated centers on people’s right to safely exist. Burying our heads in the sand isn’t the answer, but it’s reasonable for people to have boundaries on when they do and don’t have those conversations, and for them to prefer not to be pulled back into that emotional space while they’re trying to work.
So you’ll be doing the rest of your team a favor if you rein in the political discussion. Particularly as the team lead, you have a responsibility to keep these meetings on track (assuming you’re the one leading them) — and others may assume that if you’re not intervening, they shouldn’t either.
One way to do it is just to entirely refocus the meetings on work. At the start of the next meeting, you could say, “I want to respect everyone’s time, so I’m going to try to get these meetings back to five to ten minutes again. We’ll just do a quick check-in on work updates and then I’ll let us all go. I want to cover X, Y, Z …”
But you can also address it more directly: “We’ve been getting into politics a lot. I appreciate that we have a thoughtful, socially involved team, but I also know that those can be tough, deeply emotional conversations for a lot of people right now. So I’m going to ask that we keep this space politics free for now, unless it’s relevant to something we’re working on.”
Or, if those discussions have been so obviously driven by one person that it’ll be clear you’re really only addressing this to her, you’re better off speaking with her privately instead. In that case, you could say something like, “I really appreciate your commitment to social justice and the thoughtful way you’ve shared updates with the team. I want to ask that you hold it back from our morning meetings, though. These can be hard and emotional issues for people right now, even when they agree, and it can be difficult to shift gears back to work afterward.” You could add, “This isn’t at all a commentary on the importance of those issues; in fact, you and I have similar political involvement outside of our jobs. It’s just about keeping work a space where people don’t need to discuss politics if they don’t want to, or even if they just need a break from it.”
These scripts all take into account that you’re the team lead and, as such, presumably have the authority to direct how you want your meetings to go. But even if you weren’t the team lead, you’d still have standing to say something simply as a member of the team. In that case, you could try saying at the start of the next meeting, “Before we get started, I wanted to ask if we could rein in the political talk for a while. I know we often get into politics, and it’s a hard topic for me right now. I’d be grateful for a break from it!” Or even, “I know how important these issues are, but this is one of the few spaces I have to not think about politics right now. I’d be grateful to focus on anything else!”
But do speak up. I can virtually guarantee you that other members of your team will appreciate that you did.
Order Alison Green’s book Ask a Manager: How to Navigate Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work here. Got a question for her? Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Her advice column appears here every Tuesday.