The Corporate Shrink

The perils of talking politics or religion in the office.

By Kerry J. Sulkowicz
Featured on FastCompany

My father always told me never to discuss politics or religion at work, and I’ve tried to follow his advice. But these days, given the upcoming election and the war in Iraq, it’s increasingly hard to avoid these topics altogether. Is there a safe way to talk about this at work? (issue 85, page 36)

I suppose you could borrow from some of our vaunted leaders in Washington, hedging your views to such an extent that no one mistakes what you say for substance. But your dad was right: A truly meaty discussion about issues that evoke intense passions can indeed be risky in the workplace, especially when you don’t know how someone who may have an influence on your career might feel. While being judged explicitly for your religious or political views is unfair, even illegal, it’s entirely human to favor those who share similar positions on issues having deep emotional roots, and we may harbor unconscious biases against those who don’t.

On the other hand, the converse can also be true: Passionate debate on issues of mutual importance, especially with those who are like-minded, can foster individual bonds and galvanize a team. It’s also a way of creating greater intimacy. This isn’t always a good idea at work, but talking about politics and religion can do wonders for cutting to the chase in personal relationships.

If you do decide to reveal your support for Alfred E. Neuman (see how I’m protecting myself by using humor and not picking sides?), test the waters by floating your political beliefs as questions rather than as declaratory pronouncements. (Wrong approach: “That guy is a fool,” or “I can’t believe we might elect him.”) A comment that comes off as criticizing the believer, as opposed to thoughtfully debating the belief, may be a recipe for simultaneously shooting yourself in the foot and inserting it in your mouth.

A new director joined our nonprofit a year ago fresh from corporate America. She introduced process improvements and impressed higher-ups and customers, but she also alienated colleagues. She’s highly competent technically–but she suffers from one of the worst cases of narcissism I’ve ever seen. What’s your prescription?

Your assessment may be on target. We’ve discussed managerial narcissism in earlier columns, and it’s never pretty. But what interests me more is the nonprofit setting. Reading between the lines, it sounds as if you think this woman’s roots in corporate America have a bearing on her current difficulties, or may even be the source of the problem.

Don’t discount the challenge of what she’s attempting. In the corporate sector, we reward individual competitiveness and attention to the bottom line. Nonprofits, by contrast, tend to value doing good and getting along. This may account for the unpleasantness as your colleague drives process changes and manages upward.

Remember that competitiveness and aggression are no strangers to nonprofits; they’re just usually more subterranean. The newcomer may look like a megalomaniac when compared with your more muted norm. But consider that she was brought in precisely to import her ideas and corporate ways to a culture that may have grown stale. That’s bound to feel threatening, but ultimately she may help make your organization–and you–more effective.

Dr. Kerry J. Sulkowicz, a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, and founder of The Boswell Group LLC, advises executives on leadership, management, and governance. Ask him your questions about the psychology of business (