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The Paralysis of Political Correctness

By Valda Boyd Ford   1/1/2008
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What makes brilliant people become concerned--to the point of paralysis--about simple common sense issues, just because they involve race, ethnicity, gender, sexual preference, religion or physical ability?

Today, we are awash in workplace- or business-related incidents where a casual comment, remark or question can invoke profound misunderstandings and consequences. People have grown afraid to voice their opinions and communicate honestly.

Words are chosen with care and meticulousness that often border on the absurd.

Having said that, I define the paralysis of political correctness (PC) as:

  • The fear that keeps us from communicating in culturally and linguistically awkward situations.
  • The fear of using sensitive words or communications because they might embarrass or hurt the sender or receiver.
  • That tongue-tied, stomach-churning sensation that makes us avoid those employees who may need us the most.

Label Your Hang-Ups

There are four basic fears that lead to the paralysis of PC:

  1. Fear of a lack of knowledge.
  2. Fear of regulatory and administrative reprisal.
  3. Fear of a lack of competence.
  4. Fear of a deficit--lack of knowledge or competence--being found out.

We seem most uncomfortable when addressing someone who is paralyzed. One friend, for example, hates being called “physically challenged.” He says, “I am not challenged to get out of this wheelchair. It’s OK to say that I am disabled, for God’s sake. ‘Challenged’ makes it sound like, if I’d only just try hard enough, I could walk.”

We are afraid to say we don’t know, so we look for shortcuts. Expressing a lack of knowledge is not the crime--but willingly staying ignorant is criminal. There are three steps business leaders can take to help employees avoid PC paralysis as it relates to communication among themselves and their customers.

Miscommunication Knows No Borders

The key to effective communication: Take every potential conflict in communication and continually use it to expand dialogue. Discomfort, fear and the need for PC diminish as we learn more, expand life experiences and gain ease in interacting with people unlike ourselves. In other words, you can’t drill down past an insensitive word or phrase if you are paralyzed by political correctness.

Organizational Paralysis

I have asked executives from global companies about the ways paralysis of PC plays out in their organizations. Many spend weeks and months working on every detail, speech and announcement to avoid faux pas.

“Executives are not exempt from the fear of political correctness and may be even more paralyzed than people at most levels in the workplace,” says Kathy Johnson, PHR, senior vice president of Godfather’s Pizza Inc. in Omaha, Neb. “If people in the workplace could only see that the lack of open, honest communication will only hold back a company. The paralysis of PC delays creative systems, strategies and, ultimately, greater success. Our competition should be coming from external and not from internal sources.”

Paralysis runs rampant throughout organizations. Rubin Carter, division manager of corporate diversity and advocacy at Omaha Public Power District, says, “You solve issues by talking about--and not around--the issues.”

Valda Boyd Ford is chief executive officer of the Center for Human Diversity in Omaha, Neb.

Terms of Use: © 2008 Society for Human Resource Management. Members of SHRM are authorized to distribute copies, excerpts or e-mails of this information for educational purposes internally within their organizations. No other republication or external use is allowed without permission of SHRM. The information is not intended to serve as a substitute for legal advice.

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