Winning in the Workplace: Political Correctness


Political correctness. There is perhaps no term which better symbolizes the interpersonal challenges created by the last 30 years of dramatic social change. The heart of the concept has to do with the fundamental, mutual respectfulness which is a prerequisite for a positive and healthy environment. Interestingly, it has become a touchstone for our words and actions in our personal and business lives – fervently embraced by some, and equally reviled by others.

On the one extreme are the intransigent, the narrow-minded, the bigots and racists who aren’t prepared to accept that their actions and views on the world might be antiquated or indefensible. The other extreme are the hypercritical, activist PC Police and Cubicle Cops who intimidate and bully by stridently decrying anyone who crosses their personal sensitivity lines.

Most of us, of course, stand somewhere comfortably in the middle, trying to accept or champion change as gracefully as we can. But it’s not unusual to occasionally find ourselves interacting with people at either end of the spectrum.

And it can be awkward when someone you know or work with crosses a clearly defined line with a joke or comment; or, conversely, when someone overreacts to an innocuous statement or innocent gaffe. What do you do?

The fact is, for people to function well together, we need to respect each other’s needs, dreams, opportunities and abilities. We also must be willing to respect each others’ right to their opinions – even those that are very different than ours. The irony is that both the insensitive buffoon and the oversensitive objector are acting in ‘politically incorrect’ manners. They both represent people who are unwilling to entertain ideas or behavior that conflict with their personal beliefs. Unfortunately, this very stubbornness means that there is probably little you will be able to do to change either ones’ behavior. Scolding them, arguing with them, or otherwise correcting them, therefore, will likely serve no other purpose than to create even greater tension.

This means that your best strategy, when confronted with extreme behavior of either type, is that of silent observer. Don’t condone. Don’t condemn. Don’t do anything to encourage the behavior or prolong the interaction. And if you are asked for your opinion, take a page from the very politicians the term was named after: Be noncommittal.

Oh, and should you by chance catch yourself on a soapbox, lecturing someone about being either insensitive or oversensitive, you may want to look in the mirror, just to make sure the finger is pointed in the right direction.

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