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The Big Story: Preparing Your Team for a Year of Intense Political Polarization

“The campaign vitriol has begun, and many leaders are dreading what this is going to bring into their workplaces and onto their teams. This angst is not misplaced. Having social discord on your team can lead to lowered productivity and work quality and unhealthy conflict among team members…To be sure, the year ahead is going to bring even greater levels of social and political conflict.”

Know your standards, answers and mission

By David Jarrard

Your political Doppler radar should be flashing bright reds and yellows.

The crazy-laden culture storm of this volatile election year is marching across the country and likely, down your hallways to your waiting rooms, your nurse stations and, maybe to your boardroom.

You see it coming. There’s no excuse to be unprepared and for your proverbial hatches not to be tightly battened down to weather what’s sure to come.

You read the news. The US electorate is sharply polarized. Voters, like most sane people, “dread” this election and the vast majority feel “exhausted” when thinking about politics. And those answers are from surveys taken last fall. Do you think those numbers today are better or worse? Super Tuesday may officially give us the candidates, but it won’t settle things down.

On any normal day, the delivery of care is an emotional, tension-filled enterprise. The stakes are always high. Life and death, relief and pain, celebration and disappointment – these are all workaday experiences within your walls.

As colleagues and patients alike bring outside tensions inside, your spaces built for healing can become a tinderbox. As tensions mount, healthcare providers risk “unhealthy conflict” among not only team members but also between patients and their family members. “Gotcha” media questions, attention-seeking legislation and partisan activists baiting you on pointedly divisive healthcare issues lob incendiaries to the kindling.

How can you and your organization be best prepared for this season?

Know your standards, know your answers and know your mission. Fantastic, you say. Then you ask: What does that fortune cookie advice mean, really?

Consider these as three broad categories of political preparedness.

1. Know Your Standards

Refresh and remind your team about your election season protocols. These are the rules of the road set in place for institutional and colleague behavior during an election cycle. Every organization has them, even if they are hidden away in the IRS code or in your HR or CLO’s file cabinet.

Dust them off. If you don’t have these standards clearly articulated and confidentially communicated throughout your organization, do it now so that it’s clearly a preemptive action by leadership instead of a hurried response to bad actors.

Among the questions to consider:

  • How is political speech considered in your organization? How best can your colleagues have conversations about political candidates or policy issues with each other and with patients? Some may be heated, others seeking dialogue. Is there guidance for them, or even training for welcoming hard conversations?
  • How does your organization interact with campaigns and candidates? One-on-one healthcare briefings? Personalized tours? A standard package for all. Nothing for anybody? This includes a campaign’s use of your facilities for meetings, rallies and forums. Or using your building as a backdrop for photos or commercials. Colleagues advertising candidates, slogans or political parties via the t-shirts, hats, stickers they’re wearing or the giant coffee mugs they’re toting.
  • When is someone a representative of your brand and when are they a citizen? What are the crisp lines that separate how colleagues represent themselves in campaigns and hot political issues? It’s time to refresh and communicate social media guidelines for your workforce.

2. Know Your Answers

As a care provider and large employer, healthcare organizations should anticipate politically charged (and, often, ill-informed, half-baked) questions from your staff, your patients and your community on this season’s hot-button issues.

Do the work now to build, vet and get approval for your best answers, how these answers will be communicated and who will be the messenger for sharing them. Avoid the news cycle scramble that rarely results in, shall we say, positive communications outcomes. Protect your organization against the poisonous “No comment.”

Among the issues to consider (sadly, a partial list) that need your attention:

  • All things women’s health, including access to abortion services, in vitro fertilization and the plight of frozen eggs. Do you offer any of these? Why or why not?
  • Gender affirming care, including this care for minors. Do you offer it? Why or why not? If you do, how often? Do you refer it out?
  • Diversity, equity and inclusion. What are your diversity hiring and staffing policies? How is race a factor in your care delivery? In your research? How are you serving the historically underserved? How much are you investing there? Do you care for undocumented immigrants? Do you hire them?
  • Contracting. Do you contract with organizations that do business in (pick your hotspot): Israel? Russia? Ukraine? The Middle East. Florida? California? With Starbucks or Chick-fil-A? Hobby Lobby?

f this list is not exhaustive and, exhausting enough, consider the mewling basket of healthcare issues needing your readiness, too: The ridiculous cost of care, 340B, site neutral payments, the suing of poor patients and whether you actually “earn” your tax exemptions through your community benefits.

3. Know Your Mission

Caring for people is an answer to a calling. It is a cause that is more than equal to the political squabbles of any season.

Most healthcare organizations capture this cause in their mission statement, created by design to transcend the heat of any moment, to elevate the organization and its caregivers to a great purpose beyond this quarter’s financials, or competitive threats, or pandemics and politicians.

Closely consider your missional language and what actions it may call to you and your organization. What will you model?

These actions may include:

  • Supporting or hosting voter registration drives in your facilities, with your colleagues, with your patients, too. Conducted in a purely nonpartisan manner, organizations can encourage people who care about healthcare – who use it, who are smart about it – to be active voices in the political process.
  • Providing healthcare education. Healthcare providers, nurses and physicians are by far the most trusted voice in any community on healthcare matters. Being an informed voice on healthcare matters can provide critically important information and real-world perspectives on the healthcare policy issues being debated today. There is no risk-free model. Even to acknowledge an issue may draw the hot ire of some. However, if healthcare doesn’t speak to healthcare issues, others who are less informed will and the results will not be ones we would prefer. Consider how your organization can responsibly join and improve the conversation.
  • Training for hard conversations. Says HBR: “One of the best ways to prevent things from going off the rails and get your team committed to productive discourse is establishing the boundaries for what good looks like.” In this tinderbox, organizations are encouraged to embrace discomfort, show grace, to give others the benefit of the doubt, to treat others’ views as legitimate (even if you don’t share them) and to speak for yourself with ‘I’ statement rather than speaking on behalf of others. It may be that the good work you’ve done in diversity awareness and inclusivity training over the last few years has equipped you and your organization to have challenging conversations and give people safe spaces to do the same with each other. In a politically charged moment, it’s good to remember diversity of perspective and thought, too. Use that to create good in this tough moment.

Then, there’s you. The leader. The one looked to as the “sense-maker, a mediator, and a source of wisdom,” per HBR again.

“You may well wish they didn’t want those things from you, but these days, that’s the price of admission to leadership. It’s natural to feel ill-equipped for these murky moments, but if you hope they will go away or take care of themselves, you do so at our own peril.”

Peril. Dread. Risk. This is not the weather anyone wanted. Yet it’s where leaders live and sometimes thrive.

In whatever chair you sit, you are a leader – others are watching and modeling you – just as your healthcare organization and powerful brand leads, too.

This political stormfront can’t be avoided. You can’t sail around it, blithely hoping it will not touch you, or your organization or your colleagues. That’s not what your mission calls you to, in any event.

No, now’s the time to reef the main, batten the hatches and get sailing.