Ms. Price

Human Resources, Recruitment & Training

The Real Problem with Political Correctness

By Nicole Price, Founder, Lively Paradox

You're just being politically correct! In America, being politically correct has taken a new meaning and now has a negative connotation. But why? Definitions can help identify the reason. The definition of political correctness is "the avoidance, often considered as taken to extremes, of forms of expression or action that are perceived to exclude, marginalize, or insult groups of people who are socially discriminated against." In simple terms, political correctness is going to the extreme to avoid insulting socially disadvantaged groups. What could be wrong with that? The issue is not them or the term, it's us!

Dress code provides a fairly simple (and safe) way for me to express the point. Virtually every job has a dress code. We expect that our carpenters will be dressed a certain way. We expect that our judges will even be dressed a particular way. When people don't conform to what we deem normal, even in the instance of dress, we are confused. And humans don't like being confused. While working for one of the most diverse workplaces in the world, I frequently marveled at the distinct dress codes within the dress code. Attorneys dressed like attorneys. Artists looked and acted like artists and manufacturing associates certainly didn't dress like cafeteria workers.

I laugh when people say, "We don't have dress code." Walk into one of those places wearing a three-piece suit, rodeo gear or a ball gown and people will look at you strange. Why? Because you aren't dressed like they are expecting. For this reason, people were confused when I walked into a manufacturing plant dressed like a marketing professional and I was an engineer. I didn't know any better. I was young and didn't even know enough to say, "I should be able to wear whatever I want!" I was so green that I was completely oblivious to what people thought about my outfits. After all, I felt I was presentable and dressed for the job I wanted - a person who ran the world. In my case, this was problematic because good engineers wear khaki pants and polo shirts (insert sarcasm here).

When difference shows up in our families, in our neighborhoods and on our work teams, we often deceive ourselves and say it doesn't matter or that we welcome the difference. We encourage people to bring their best selves to the table and be authentic. This is well and good until your "authentic" rubs up against what I believe to be socially acceptable behavior. For this reason, conforming to dress code does matter. It is even more important when people experience you for the first time. That initial interaction is when the mind takes the most mental, subconscious shortcuts.

Leadership coach Tara Jaye describes it this way: "We all understand what we personally experience. We also value what we understand. We then act according to what we personally value. Then our brains proceed to create mental shortcuts in the name of efficiency, reinforcing our existing behaviors. Mental shortcuts are the enemy of inclusion because doing anything outside your natural inclination requires intentional thought. And what does intentional thought require? You guessed it - consciousness. We need to uncover ways to increase our consciousness."

Mental shortcuts cause us to become victims of bias. We lean on prejudices to make swift decisions (i.e. do I trust you or will you kill me). This is true to a lesser degree when a new associate joins a team. The first few days are likely when a new person has no idea what to wear or about any other cultural norms. However, if you are similar to the people at your new place of employment, there's no problem. Someone will speak up and likely give you casual feedback if you aren't dressed for the part or if you don't pick it up on basic cultural rules. However, if you are unorthodox, disadvantaged, underrepresented, or discriminated against, people won't say a word.

Why? Is it because they are being politically correct? No, it is because they don't trust themselves. They worry about their motives and your subsequent response. Will you think they are motivated by your difference versus seeing them as simply someone who wants to help you be one of the family? If the issue were only about the receiver's potential reaction, all new people regardless of similarity or difference, would be handled comparably. They aren't. In one situation feedback is present and in the other, it is absent. This is because political correctness isn't about the beneficiary.

Most people spend little time thinking consciously about any of this. Increasing our consciousness requires that we get close to things that we are oblivious about. That is a paradox. Why would I do the self-work related to something I am not for or against - I'm blind to it? I won't! Consequently, when we won't do the self-work to know more about our biases, we still get feedback from the universe that something is off kilter. Most people are inherently good and don't want to believe that there is something about them that excludes people or is riddled with prejudice. For this reason, we are afraid to speak with people. If we do speak, we are nervous that some ignorance might fall out of our mouths. Here's what I mean. Ignorance alone is not an issue. Ignorance because you choose not to be informed is an issue. In general, we are innately separatists. We love to be with people who are like us.

I am not judging. I am included in this problem as well because, even for me, homogeneity is simpler. We all know and mostly understand each other when we are similar. When difference is introduced, interesting things happen. We introduce difference and try to act like it's all going to be smooth sailing. It's not. Diversity hurts. We want to believe that we don't see difference, but we do, and often it makes things tougher in the short term. Acknowledging this fact is the first step in being able to dismantle the need to feel anything but openness when working to avoid insulting people or being "politically correct."

We also have to acknowledge that all humans have biases. The conscious biases are the ones we all see, then at times, act like there's no problem. That lack of acknowledgement is problematic. One of the most egregious instances of this is the focus on Millennials. They are grown men and women; the oldest ones are almost 40 years old! That fact is not slowing the "these young people these days" narrative. Respectable adults are harshly judging their fellow colleagues because of something they once were - young and in need of coaching. Even so, conscious bias is not the most problematic issue, subconscious bias is. A subconscious bias is an assumption that we make - a prejudice that we have - that we may not even realize. It's not something we've thought about and consciously decided. It's not based on logic. Frequently unconscious biases can be seen in some of the associations we make automatically, like assuming a Veteran is a man or any other connection that, beyond our socialization, have very little to do with each other.

What does this have to do with political correctness? Unconscious bias is sneaky. Many people won't do the work to uncover their unconscious bias. Yet they are aware that unfamiliarity hinders relationships. This awareness causes us to tip-toe around issues (large and small) and choose political correctness. This is not because we don't trust the other person. It is because we don't trust ourselves and don't want to say or do something that would cause us to lose friends. So, what do we do instead? We are careful with our words and actions to a fault and then blame others for being "too sensitive" or resent that we have to be politically correct. So what can we do about it?

  1. Awareness - Understand your unconscious biases. Take the Harvard Implicit Association tests to identify areas where you have biases you are unaware of.
  2. Accept - Avoid arguing against your results. Lean in and identify what experiences or social imagery helped to shape your associations.
  3. Reflect - Think of at least three things you can do to better understand and/ or support the group you are biased against.
  4. Act - Start immediately doing at least one of the things you have identified.
  5. Learn: As you get closer to people and situations you haven't experienced before, keep an open mind and know that some of your existing frameworks will be dismantled. That is ok.
  6. Build - Use what you learn to blend with what you already believed to be true and build a new reality.

The above process was adapted from the Lominger (now Korn Ferry) change sequence model.

If you want to change the way you feel around people who are different from you, start with you. In the book Change or Die, Alan Deutschman shares the importance of relationships when changing anything. We will not transform much related to political correctness if we don't understand that true relationships and interactions are critically necessary to experience impact. Authentic relationships with people are what increase our comfort level and help us interact and be human in non-offensive ways even with something as simple as dress. Being emotionally and socially intelligent requires that we understand the importance words play in getting along well with others and respond to people different from us with some level of self-control, empathy and compassion. Otherwise, the only choice remaining is political correctness and that's a problem!

Nicole Price, founder of Lively Paradox gets it. She believes two things: 1) if leadership is anything, it’s personal 2) everyone can be a great leader — everyone can lead his or her own, whole life. So she gets personal. Ms. Price's transparency allows others to learn from her mistakes and helps them avoid the same pitfalls. She gets real. She will tell you, yes, having differences within a team can be harder, but that hard work can really pay off — both professionally and personally. And she gets wise. She’ll tell you, in a heartbeat, how she’s gotten a few things wrong over the years, but a little grace and some solid coaching saved her. Ms. Price can be contacted at 844-387-4589 or nicole@livelyparadox.net Please visit http://www.livelyparadox.net for more information. Extended Bio...

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