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The wrong side of politically correct

4 min read


This post is part of the series “Communication,” a weeklong effort co-hosted by SmartBrief’s SmartBlog on Leadership and the folks at Switch & ShiftKeep track of the series here and check out our daily e-mail newsletter, SmartBrief on Leadership. Don’t subscribe? Sign up.

It’s tragic when otherwise-smart leaders make poor choices in the name of being politically correct.

  • “We all know why this project went south, but it wouldn’t be politically correct to bring it up. We can’t remind him of that decision. Let’s just blame it on poor execution.”
  • “If this were my business, I would make a different choice. And I know you would do the same, but the optics on this are just too intense, I think we need to go in the other direction.”
  • “I know John’s the most qualified for the job, by Kelly’s really the executive favorite. We’d be doing John a disservice if we promoted him over Kelly. He just wouldn’t have the support he needs.”

When fear of ticking off the wrong person trumps “right,” the business suffers on many levels: wasted time, poor decisions, inferior talent. You’ll never find “politically correct” on a short list of company values, and yet, political correctness is an unspoken part of the decision-making process in many companies.  When leaders groom their protegés to follow a similar pattern, the destructive cycle continues.

Mike Myatt shares in his book “Hacking Leadership”:

“In the face of perceived conflict, dissension, threats or controversy, people tend to default to denial, justification and rationalization. In today’s politically correct world, it is just easier for most people to hide in the safety of the majority than it is to take on the risk of being outspoken, innovative, disruptive, challenging, convicted, bold, controversial, or truthful.”

Dangerous side effects of politically correct

The dangers of making wrong choices outweigh the short-term comforts. Strong leaders take the long view and say what they mean.

Poor decisions

When the desire for political correctness trumps truth-telling, important insights are lost in translation. As an executive, I’m always amazed when I hear through the grapevine what folks think I will or won’t “like.” Even when leaders want to know the truth, it’s easy for others to second guess what they’re looking for. What “Karin wants,” is the good, bad and the ugly, and your true thoughts on what we should do. Anything less will weaken our mission.

Blocked learning

When leaders reinvent history to “protect” those who made the decision or to justify poor outcomes, they sacrifice the important learning that comes from making mistakes. Much better for the “protected” to admit they’ve screwed up before anyone is trying to save them the embarrassment. Leaders can help others save face by creating a culture where mistakes are accepted as part of the learning process.

Inferior talent

Many organizations have a long list of unspoken criteria they use to select candidates before they get to the truly most qualified. The best candidate is the one with a unique set of talents and skills to create breakthrough results, not the one who’s built a career working to offend no one, or who fits some gap in the diversity profile.

Wasted time

Much time is wasted when people tell others what they think they want to hear or spin their words into politically correct code.  Be polite, be sensitive and kind, but save us all some time and tell the truth.

Employee engagement

Nothing’s more frustrating to employees at the front line than to see their bosses making poor choices for political reasons. Strong leaders create a culture where “politically correct” and correct are as closely aligned as possible.

Your turn: What are the downsides of political correctness?

For more on saying what you mean, join in the “Mean It” madness in March on Let’s Grow Leaders by sharing your truth-telling success stories.

Karin Hurt is an experienced executive and founder of Let’s Grow Leaders. She was named to the “2014 Top 100 List of Thought Leaders in Trusted Business Behavior” by Trust Across America, and the Wiseman Group’s Multiplier of the Year in Business.  Her experience is based on two decades of leadership and executive experience at Verizon in sales, marketing, customer service, merger integration, human resources and training. Her mission is to develop the next generation of trustworthy transparent leaders achieving breakthrough results. Follow Hurt on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn and Pinterest.