NEW ORLEANS — Alexander Alonso’s interest in managing conflict among people comes from a few places. First, his background growing up in the Cuban community, where political discussion was common; and second, his varied HR background across industries like airlines and insurance, and across compliance, learning and organizational development departments.
Now chief knowledge officer at the Society for Human Resource Management, Alonso recently wrote a book on the subject after delving into a trove of research. He will be presenting some of his findings at the organization’s annual conference on June 13 and 14. But first, he gave HR Dive a sneak peak.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
HR DIVE: What made you want to focus on this topic?
ALEXANDER ALONSO: It actually came about in a few different ways. Growing up in the Cuban community, there's kind of a backdrop of what they call “polémica,” which is political discussion. And so there's a thing in Cuba, where there’s a natural time in somebody's life in which they engage in those kinds of discussions. You need to do that and be comfortable.
Over the years, we’ve had many different kinds of things pop up that have been really controversial. My first experience was in grad school, when the Elián González story happened … talking about that and seeing the very stark differences between someone who grew up in traditional America and somebody who came from Cuba. Neither side is wrong, but it was just two very different perspectives, and it causes real issues in the workplace.
Fast forward to 2020. I have two colleagues, really nice ladies, and they started arguing about the killing of George Floyd. And sure enough, they found a way to embody exactly what I grew up with, which was, ‘We can talk about this, and it will not harm our relationship in any way, shape or form. And we’re going to disagree.’ What I learned from them was how to do it the right way.
Then we took it a step further and engaged in some research and said, ‘How do you take that and actually make this an asset for your organization?’
Last year, the company Basecamp decided not to have any political discussion at work after it ramped up too much and became too intense. Based on your book, it seems you disagree with that. Why?
It isn’t just Basecamp — we’re heard other companies discussing not talking about Roe v. Wade, that was the most recent one. And while [the idea] is nice, the problem is that we know that almost a quarter of the workforce says that they love talking about politics in the workplace. We also see that 92% say that over the course of their careers, they’ve witnessed these kinds of things, to the point where it made them uncomfortable. They didn't know how to handle it.
So rather than trying to tell people the old guidance that we always hear from our grandmothers — ‘Don't talk about politics, don't talk about religion, don't talk about money’ — those things don't work. People end up doing it anyway. So I’d rather give people skills to help them cope with those situations and manage them well, rather than try to avoid them.
It seems like in a lot of ways — especially with the Washington Post situation, for example, and with a recent situation with Levi's — it's what people are doing outside of work that is getting brought in to work or that people are discussing at work. How does HR find the line between not being overly invasive in people’s lives but also reinforcing the organization’s values?
In both those cases, the conversation that was happening started off as a taboo topic. But it ended up being weaponized. It was used as a way to say that this person had crossed the line or done something that was not just taboo, but personal.
You can have a taboo kind of conversation, where somebody is polarized, or has a polarized perspective. You could then become entrenched and have those discussions against each other. The hard part is when it becomes weaponized, right? To say, ‘Okay, you said this, and it's making my culture or making me feel so hurt or victimized that I have to go ahead and fire back … something to not retaliate but at least protect myself.’ So the common weapon would be HR taking a complaint and the individual is investigated.
What I propose is, before it gets to a point where it's weaponized, how about having a conversation and finding a way [for the employee] to take that polarization and say, ‘Okay, I see where you're coming from but I'm not going to take it personally. I’m not going to entrench myself to the point where it's a personal attack.’
In the case of an old tweet [for example], let’s go ahead and say, ‘Okay, this is an old tweet, this person has been rebuked, let's give this person some training.’ And that's how we stop. This person should not lose their career over it. I say that because what you might say today, 10 or 15 years down the line, may no longer be acceptable.
Instead, let's have a conversation, acknowledge that it's a polarized discussion and focus on three questions: How is it affecting me, the individual feeling polarized? How is it affecting all the parties involved? And how does it affect a work outcome? If you can do that, take those three steps, you can mitigate 90% of the polarization that happens.
A lot of what happens in workplaces currently is that a conflict happens and it ramps up really quickly. People don't want to interact with each other and there are questions about safety, for example. Can you talk a little more about de-escalation, especially when people are making claims about safety and other things that need to be taken seriously?
When someone makes a case around safety, it immediately triggers certain activities; HR departments can’t ignore the issues that are associated with that. So that’s very clear.
What I would argue, though, is before we get to that, let's define what it is that is making someone feel unsafe. There's a difference between being disregarded and being mistreated or not safe, right, or even being treated with some sort of threat.
And so when I think about that, I think, ‘Is somebody disagreeing with me? Or is someone actually engaging in full-blown rage against me that is threatening?’ That's the part I talk about in the framework in the book: What does it feel like to you? What does it feel like to the other people, and how does it impact the work outcome? And if they're feeling something that is basically disagreement, then you can boil it down, even if it comes with all sorts of hubris and bumping of the chest and all that.
If it's something that is purely threatening, then I see the case for engaging in true workplace litigation. But the arbiter of that, many times — the person who can help shape that and help people walk away from conflict situations — is the people manager. The problem is that most people managers don't have the skills … We haven't really trained them on the skills they need to be empathetic, to be truly understanding of a situation and be able to de-escalate it, as you described.
How do you think HR pros can or should get that training?
There really isn't a management program. You can get an MBA, but managing a business isn't really about managing people, right? SHRM has a first-time manager credential; LinkedIn Learning also has some.
But we need a lot more. The problem is more often than not, experience is what’s needed. What I would advocate for is getting people immersed in a situation where they do that so that they can pick that up. We're actually piloting something now that’s kind of like a virtual reality, so someone can be really immersed and manage polarizing discussions.
The three things I would advocate for in those situations are demonstrating care and concern; demonstrating understanding; and demonstrating the ability to help someone advance in their career.