A poll released last year by NBC shows that more than 80 percent of Americans believe the country is divided.1 This mirrors a poll released by Military Times that found 77 percent of service members felt the same.2 The starkly divided U.S. political climate can strain relationships, especially in the workplace—even in the military. One political conversation that becomes confrontational or disrespectful could erode confidence in leaders or unit cohesion.
All leaders—both enlisted and officers—must approach these matters professionally, in a way that sets a tone of respect and understanding throughout the shop, department, or command. Traditional lessons in leadership might tell leaders to avoid politics in the workplace at all costs. The Navy fosters a unique environment, however, in which work life and personal life are often indistinguishable. For a division of sailors working on a ship in a cramped space, living in the same berthing, and eating on the same mess deck, it is all but inevitable that politics will work its way into day-to-day discourse. On a ship in which the only solitary sanctuary may be a bathroom stall, completely avoiding politics may not be possible. Considering this unique work-life situation and the growing national political divide, leaders must understand how to ensure—and even encourage—productive political discourse within their units.
I surveyed my division to try to understand this problem. The survey comprised seven yes-or-no questions and allowed respondents the opportunity share any other thoughts they had on the topic. A few things to highlight going forward: First, the survey used the term “workplace” several times. In the Navy, the workplace and living space are often difficult to differentiate. Second, I interviewed 17 enlisted sailors and 3 officers. My Naval Academy statistics professor would probably be disappointed that I did not interview at least 30 people—an apparently magic number in statistics—but I am just a lowly lieutenant with a single division. I also earned a C in his course.
Do you think it’s important to talk about politics?
This question was first and perhaps the most influential. It was designed to provide insight into the other questions. More than half of the division said yes, it is important to discuss politics. The ones who said “no” admitted that they were—for the most part—disengaged from politics. The rate of political engagement within the division seemed to match that of the military at large—a rate consistently lower than civilians of similar demographics. According to the Federal Voting Assistance Program, 69 percent of military members were registered to vote in the 2020 election, compared to 83 percent of civilians.3 Despite a federally mandated ability to vote via absentee ballot, many military members choose to abstain.
Does learning about a leader’s political leanings affect your perception of them?
This question was designed to help assess the risk a leader faces when talking politics with a subordinate. The majority of the division said a leader’s stance on certain political topics did not affect how they viewed said leader—good news for leaders who are worried about voicing their views out of fear of social repercussions. As one might expect, those who answered yes said their perception could be positively or negatively affected depending on whether their leaders’ viewpoints aligned with their own.
Almost every sailor, however, clarified that what matters most is how a leader presents his or her opinions, not necessarily what their opinions might be. One sailor, for example, mentioned a discussion had with a superior concerning the COVID-19 pandemic response. They said that while there was a difference of opinion, their superior remained professional and listened intently, which resulted in a productive conversation and a better understanding between the two.
Have you ever witnessed a leader enter into a confrontational/disrespectful political argument in the workplace? If so, did it negatively affect your perception of them?
Most said yes, they had seen at least one of their superiors enter a political discussion, either with them or another sailor, that turned hostile or unprofessional. Fewer than half, however, felt it made a lasting negative impression. This implies that, for the most part, while a disrespectful conversation is not acceptable in the workplace, a leaders’ reputation seems to be more able to withstand confrontational discussions—at least when it comes to politics—than one might think.
Do you think it is possible to have a productive political conversation in the workplace?
Every sailor said yes to this question, most of them stressing the importance of remaining calm and respectful. Some asked what “productive” meant in this context—a great question. I answered that a productive political conversation is one in which the discourse does not become confrontational to the point of hostility and that both parties come away having learned something. Every sailor agreed that yes, this is possible, even in the workplace.
Do you think respectful political conversations can add to unit cohesion?
Most sailors answered yes. Many voiced the importance of learning more about the backgrounds of those with whom they work. Others said that while a respectful conversation may add to unit cohesion, it may not be worth the risk, and again stressed the importance of delivering political opinions in a metered and professional manner.
Do you think we should have political conversations with our shipmates?
The survey ended with the question at the heart of my argument. Half answered yes and half answered no. I think a 50/50 split makes sense. Those who said yes echoed thoughts discussed previously, including increased unit cohesion and a desire to close the partisan divide. Those who said no seemed to support the age-old rule of separating work, religion, and politics. The majority of those who answered no also said they did not think it was important to talk about politics in general.
Results and Lessons
The following are my major takeaways from my conversations with the division. It is not an exhaustive list but certainly a good starting point for learning how to navigate murky political waters with your sailors.
Leave emotion and ego at the door. A calm demeanor is infectious. It is very difficult for one party in a discussion to become emotional if the other does not. This applies to mediation as well. Should leaders witness two of their sailors engaging in a political discussion, a calm presence and gentle encouragement to stay respectful can make all the difference. Staying calm, cool, and collected can be easier said than done. It takes humility and practice. The goal in any political discussion should not be to win an argument, but rather to gain a deeper understanding of your sailors and the nation at large.
Weigh the risks. While the survey implies that most sailors believe it is possible to have a productive political discussion in the workplace, there are risks to discussing politics in a professional setting. Do so with caution and keep discussions short. Choose topics that you find important and about which you have knowledge that could be useful to others. Finally, use extra care when talking politics with superiors or subordinates. For conversations in which a rank or power disparity exists, there is more risk to the subordinate should the discussion become hostile.
Find common ground. Whether talking to a peer or someone up or
down the chain of command, consider that you both decided to join the Navy and serve your country. This is a bond that few in the United States share and one that should bring you back to a place of understanding should your political discussion turn south. Also, keep in mind that common ground and learning more about your sailors to form a more united Navy is the goal in the first place.
Encourage voting. Nothing shows you care about the voice of your sailors more than encouraging them to vote. There are not many professions in which every employee is allowed to have a say in who their bosses are. Help them vote. The logistics of voting in the military can be confusing, but a two-minute internet search can lead you in the right direction. Sailors have the same power as every other citizen in the United States to determine in which direction the nation is steered, and it is a shame to waste this privilege.
Other lessons. First, one-on-one conversations are always best. The larger the group size, the higher the chance emotions could flare. Unproductive banter and a tendency for one or two shipmates to get ideologically outnumbered often sets people on the defensive. Second, keep topics specific. Discussions about candidates or political parties as a whole never seem to end productively. Third, humor is useful but risky. A respectful joke can go a long way toward dispelling tension, but it also can come across as condescending if it does not land as intended.
Politics is important. The fact that politics is uncomfortable is the very reason we should discuss it, as progress often requires discomfort. As members of the military, we should take a special interest in politics—perhaps even more so than the average citizen. If the military is charged with protecting the nation, and the state of the nation is driven by politics, it follows that it is the duty of every service member to care about politics, be informed, and do what they can to close the partisan divide. The separation of work and politics is safe and time tested, but these are unusual times. Engage with your peers and engage with your sailors, but do so in a way that demonstrates calm, thoughtful leadership in the face of today’s national divide. Political conversations are possible and can be productive if we stay professional.
1. Ben Kamisar, NBC News April poll, 25 April 2021, www.documentcloud.org/documents/20690434-210098-nbc-news-april-poll-4-25-21-release.
2. Leo Shane III, “Troops See Rising Political Tension in the Ranks, Poll Shows,” Military Times, 17 October 2018.
3.Federal Voting Assistance Program, “State of the Military Voter,” www.fvap.gov/info/reports-surveys/StateoftheMilitaryVoter.