Does political correctness create more cohesive workplaces? 

Timothy Zahara, Lawyer, KPMG Law
Timothy Zahara, Lawyer, KPMG Law

Uttering the phrase “political correctness” in the workplace is not a good way to make friends. Few people are interested in being lectured by the “PC police”, and it is difficult to avoid the perception that you are trying to inhibit the larrikin spirit that forms an important part of the Australian culture. Despite this, there is a case to be made for political correctness in the workforce, but only if it can be effectively harnessed as a tool to facilitate workplace harmony as opposed to seeking to allocate blame.

I still remember my first week as a new graduate working in a conservative organisation. I overheard a loud conversation outside my office in which a derogatory term was casually and repeatedly used to refer to gay men. Nobody involved in the conversation reacted at all, and I seriously questioned whether this was a workplace that welcomed diversity.

I did nothing about it at the time however, afraid of coming across as overly sensitive. Had I been able to speak up, confident that my concerns would be taken seriously, I would have learned much more quickly that this particular incident was an aberration in an otherwise very accepting workplace.

There is no question that encouraging diversity in the workplace is a worthy goal. What is often doubted, however, is whether encouraging a culture of political correctness can bring organisations closer to achieving this. After all, it is not difficult to think of instances where political correctness can be an unwelcome constraint in the workplace: a male manager of a team with only one female may be reticent to address performance issues with the female employee for fear of appearing to be sexist. Conversely, the female employee in that situation may be reticent to address issues relating to her position for fear of appearing as though she is unable to ‘fit in’ with the group.

The question then becomes, are the constraints imposed by political correctness worthwhile, or does political correctness stifle self-expression and creativity, leading to worse outcomes in the workplace?

A 2014 study led by an academic from Cornell University sought to answer the question of whether political correctness reduces creativity in group brainstorming sessions. The study found that creativity in mixed-sex groups was actually enhanced by imposing a norm amongst group participants to be politically correct.

The issues discussed above will not disappear overnight however. Ideally, employers would be able to capitalise on a ‘Golden Zone’ of political correctness.  Employees from diverse backgrounds should be empowered to work together cohesively, whilst avoiding an environment where employees are unable to feel comfortable expressing themselves naturally, or feel as though they must walk on eggshells to avoid causing offence.

A group of academics out of Harvard University have come up with a framework that may enable employers to achieve this Golden Zone. The framework is fairly simple in theory, and is made up of the following steps (which may have some degree of overlap):

Pause: if you feel like someone has shown prejudice to you, or are worried that someone perceives you as being prejudiced, instead of immediately assigning blame or becoming defensive, stop, identify your feelings and consider your response.

Connect: explore the other person’s perspective by asking questions, and explain your own perspective.

Question yourself: ask yourself if your perception is being distorted by a desire to be proven innocent of bearing prejudice or to be justified in feeling threatened.

Get genuine support: seek support from people who will challenge your position, as opposed to seeking perspectives that will simply reinforce your initial position.

Shift your mindset: ask yourself what you could change to improve workplace relationships.

The above framework is not intended to be a panacea for all interpersonal issues arising out of a diverse workforce. What it seeks to achieve, however, is to shift the thrust of political correctness away from a culture of assigning blame, which provokes a visceral defensiveness in people, towards an ideal of greater understanding.

Of course, implementing this framework is much easier said than done. Education is required at all levels of the workforce in order for these sorts of tools to have any real impact.

Most organisations already conduct some sort of diversity training, even if simply to educate employees at a basic level about their anti-discrimination obligations. But by increasing the sophistication of such training to empower employees with a positive framework, employers will come closer to achieving the “Golden Zone”, enabling employees from diverse backgrounds to effectively and efficiently work together

References:

Robin J. Ely, Debra E. Meyerson and Martin N. Davidson, ‘Rethinking Political Correctness’ (September 2006) Harvard Business Review 1.

Jack Goncalo et al, ‘Creativity from Constraint? How Political Correctness Influences Creativity in Mixed-Sex Work Groups’ (2015) 60 Administrative Science Quarterly 1.

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