The Effect of a Conversation on Political Views
The stereotypical corporate anti-discrimination policy prevents managers and staff from doing or saying anything that would hint at the existence of race, sex, age, religion, or any other protected categories in the workplace, and discourages discussion of such sensitive issues. Such restrictions are never codified explicitly in the text of these policies, but many people are so concerned about appearing either insensitive or oversensitive about culture, discrimination, and equality that they consider silence preferable to discussion. Even with the benefit of training, employees may be afraid of causing inadvertent offense, and some may recognize, as I’ll discuss in a future article, that even gratuitous references to protected categories can remind workers of stereotypes in ways that measurably undermine performance. But this reluctance to confront sensitive social topics will also do little to encourage meaningful and trusting relationships among coworkers, which is arguably more valuable to the company than any policy.
A study published in the December 12, 2014 issue of the journal Science suggests that a more nuanced interpretation of anti-discrimination policies that encourages respectful conversation may promote a more inclusive and tolerant workforce. The study found that when individuals conducting public opinion canvassing self-identified as gay or lesbian while engaging a responding member of the public in a single, 22-minute discussion about same-sex marriage, this had a significant, long-lasting, favorable effect on the respondent’s receptiveness to same-sex marriage as a political issue. For employers interested in strategies to promote a greater sense of inclusion among their employees, the study implies that a more nuanced interpretation of company policies to encourage respectful discussion of sensitive social issues would be a step in the right direction.
The study first recruited registered voters in a particular voting district to participate in an online survey about politics. These surveys revealed, overall, a neutral attitude toward same-sex marriage among respondents as rated on a five-point scale where 1 reflected strong opposition to same-sex marriage, and 5 reflected strong support; the distribution of responses does not seem skewed in either direction. Households with at least two survey participants were then randomly assigned for follow-up contact under one of five experimental conditions: a gay or lesbian canvasser who, after identifying themselves as homosexual at a natural point in the discussion, followed a script explaining how a ban on same-sex marriage affected them personally; a heterosexual canvasser whose script explained how a ban on same-sex marriage affected someone close to them; a gay or lesbian canvasser who followed a script about recycling, but did not mention their sexual orientation; a heterosexual canvasser whose script concerned recycling, also without reference to sexual orientation; or no in-person follow-up (the control group). As part of these scripts, canvassers explained why they wanted to see a change in policy (whether this referred to same-sex marriage or recycling), and asked voters to share their thoughts on the subject. The control group consisted of about 1900 households, and each of the test groups contained about 400 households. Remarkably, canvassers were told by voters to go away in only 11 out of 1600 instances, and the researchers report that the average conversation (presumably at the doorstep) lasted about 22 minutes. Follow-up surveys were then conducted in the weeks and months after the canvassers’ direct contact. The researchers made efforts to ensure that voters did not perceive any connection between the initial surveys, the canvassing, and the follow-up polls. Apparently by coincidence, two significant court decisions striking down bans on same-sex marriage, one by the California Supreme Court and one by the United States Supreme Court, issued during the follow-up period, and researchers were able to track the effects of those decisions on respondents’ opinions as well.
The results of the follow-up survey were startling. Voters who had discussed same-sex marriage directly with a gay or lesbian canvasser tended to adopt more favorable views of same-sex marriage after those conversations, shifting from a neutral average score of 3.0 to a moderately favorable score of 3.4 on the five-point scale. Their average support for same-sex marriage jumped by the same amount again (from about 3.4 to about 3.8) when the California and U.S. Supreme Courts struck down bans on same-sex marriage. Further, voters who had discussed same-sex marriage directly with gay or lesbian canvassers continued to hold these more favorable views in follow-up studies occurring as late as nine months after the original meeting. By contrast, voters who had discussed same-sex marriage with heterosexual canvassers were more favorably disposed toward same-sex marriage for a short time, but within a few weeks reverted to their earlier attitudes. Intervening court decisions also briefly made them more favorably disposed to same-sex marriage, but these effects were not long-lasting. Intervening court decisions also had little or no lasting effect on the control group or the people who had discussed recycling.
The researchers also noticed an interesting effect within households: when one member of the household spoke with a gay or lesbian canvasser about same-sex marriage, other members of the household also became more favorably disposed toward same-sex marriage over the long term, and became still more favorably disposed after receiving news of the court decisions, but the effect was not as pronounced as for their housemates who had participated in face-to-face encounters. The researchers drew inferences from this about secondary social effects – favorable impressions can be contagious.
The study suggests that a single conversation can change someone’s mind on even a divisive social issue. However, the identity of the conversants matters. Although it’s always challenging to humanize data without distorting it, it appears that having a direct encounter with a member of a social minority on a meaningful topic broadens perspectives and leaves a lasting impression. By contrast, discussions among members of a social majority, without direct engagement of excluded groups, have a smaller and shorter-lived effect, but are better than nothing.
These results seems to have an immediate application for employers hoping to encourage more inclusive attitudes. As I tend to argue during anti-discrimination training, there’s simply no substitute for coworkers getting to know one another as people and talking about what matters to them; doing so tends to stretch and moderate employees’ outlooks, and may encourage feelings of solidarity with people that they’d previously regarded only as foreign. Employees who believe they’re being listened to at work also tend to be less litigious.
A corollary to this is that employers have good reason to avoid stifling intelligent conversation. The study above suggests that a meaningful conversation lasting only 22 minutes can, under the right circumstances, profoundly affect someone’s opinions on equality, inclusion, and fairness. The effects may also move in more than one direction; I’ve witnessed occasions where a client’s sensitive conversation with an employee over possible religious accommodations elicited a reaction of gratitude and loyalty, even where accommodation turned out to be impossible: the employee was impressed by the extent of the employer’s sincere efforts to understand their needs and perspective.
Obviously, I’m not recommending that employers jettison their anti-discrimination policies; far from it. Expectations of common decency and mutual respect must continue to apply, and offensive language or conduct needs to be addressed swiftly. Nor am I encouraging employers to sponsor roundtable discussions or town-hall meetings about hot-button political issues; that isn’t the type of conversation the canvassers had with voters in this study, and I think we all recognize that group discussions are often quite poorly suited for a meaningful exchange of ideas and the thoughtful engagement of all participants. Instead, it’s private conversations, not the gregarious sort, that seem most likely to touch people and change their minds. And this makes sense, because in many cases we adjust our views and values not on purely rational grounds, but more through emulation of people we admire (for grand or trivial reasons), through infectious enthusiasm, because manners can be stronger than dogma, through resonance with a particular metaphor, or through other subtle human mechanisms.
One reason why companies adopt anti-discrimination policies and promote diversity and inclusion in the workplace, not entirely distinct from legal and moral considerations, is that such policies encourage employees to establish relationships of trust and mutual understanding with their colleagues so they feel comfortable, confident, and empowered in the workplace. This, in turn, presumably motivates them to perform at their best without social and political distractions. This study suggests that one of the more effective strategies for establishing long-lasting connections – and persuasive ones, at that – is simply to encourage private conversations on topics that people find important. As a result, managers and human resources professionals charged with interpreting and enforcing anti-discrimination policies may want to be alert for opportunities to move beyond the common stereotype of an anti-discrimination policy as a gag order, and try instead to advance a more nuanced interpretation that encourages respectful discussion.