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The surprising upside to provocative conversations at work

Contrary to conventional wisdom, workplace conversations about societal issues aren’t a distraction—they’re a way for employees to understand one another better.

As the world becomes increasingly polarized around a range of hot-button topics, companies often try to keep these issues from becoming a distraction in the workplace. After all, employee conversations about societal topics like climate, immigration, race, and gender equity may seem like a potential source of discord—and HR headaches. But here’s one counterintuitive approach: help your employees talk it out. According to PwC’s latest workforce survey, a majority of employees are already having these conversations. What’s more, they’re benefiting from the experience.

We surveyed more than 52,000 workers in 44 territories—one of the biggest global workforce surveys ever conducted. The questions covered a range of topics, from hybrid work to technology to factors that will push people to ask for a raise or look for another job. But some of the most surprising findings had to do with discussions about sensitive topics in the workplace.

Most leaders treat these conversations as a possible minefield, with the potential to distract employees from work (at best) and—more likely—lead to disputes if employees feel outnumbered or out-argued. But among respondents, 65% said they have these kinds of conversations sometimes or frequently. The numbers were even higher among younger employees.

Moreover, people were asked about the overall impact of these conversations, and they were far more likely to cite positive outcomes than negatives (by a difference of 34 percentage points). The most popular of those positives? Some 37% said that conversations about societal issues helped them better understand their colleagues and increased their empathy for people with different viewpoints. Notably, people also said that these conversations helped create a more open and inclusive work environment—a key goal of most organizations these days.

The negative impacts, cited by a far smaller share of respondents, include increasing employees’ reluctance to share their views, added stress at work, and making it harder to work with people who have different opinions.

All of these numbers, both good and bad, were higher for self-reported ethnic minorities. They were more likely than other respondents to say that they have these conversations, more likely to say that these experiences have had a positive impact, and also more likely to cite at least one negative impact. The overall effect of these conversations is more intense for these employees.

These results link to a broad theme that shows up in other areas of the survey results: employees want to be their authentic selves at work. They don’t want to be muzzled by corporate policies, and they don’t want to feel that they have to censor their own opinions.

How leaders can foster a dialogue

These discussions are happening despite little active effort on the part of organizations to facilitate them. Only 30% of employees said their company provides support to help them work effectively with people who share different views. This is a missed opportunity, given the importance of empathy and openness in building trust.

Employees want to be their authentic selves at work. They don’t want to be muzzled by corporate policies, and they don’t want to feel that they have to censor their own opinions.

To be sure, supporting and encouraging sensitive conversations isn’t easy. However, leaders can create the right conditions by establishing norms, offering resources, and helping ensure that these conversations happen in safe environments, with ground rules about avoiding judgment or trying to persuade people to change their minds. Critically, employees should always have the option to just show up and listen to better understand how colleagues are impacted by something happening in the world.

The objective of these conversations should definitely not be to reach solutions or generate consensus. In that way, fostering these conversations is a growth opportunity for senior executives as well, who are often much more comfortable in problem-solving mode. The leader’s role here is to help the company bring meaning, humanity, and social impact to the workforce—not to deliver answers.

The main takeaway for senior leaders is that you can’t isolate employees from the issues of the world. You can, however, help them sort through those issues and create a more welcoming, inclusive environment in which people are free to be their authentic selves—and maybe even learn from their colleagues. And if senior leaders can help promote such an inclusive environment, it could help to moderate the extreme, polarizing views that exist today and lead to a more harmonious existence for everyone.

Author Profiles:

  • Bhushan Sethi is the joint global leader of PwC’s people and organization practice. Based in New York, he is a principal with PwC US and an adjunct professor at New York University’s Leonard N. Stern School of Business.
  • Peter Brown is the joint global leader of PwC’s people and organization practice. He has more than 20 years of experience helping large multinational corporations redefine the way work gets done and create innovative talent ecosystems that build enabled and agile workforces. Based in London, he is a partner with PwC UK.
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