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Politically Correct (Are you a PC leader?)

Posted on: September 30 2015

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If you intend to lead a diverse team of quality individuals, then you’ll need to understand what we mean by political correctness. I’m passionate about this – so let’s break it down at the very start:

  • Politics – the organised control over a human community;
  • Correctness – to set right or rectify.

When I absorbed the real meaning of the words as opposed to the pejorative use of the term it began to make more sense to revive this controversial concept in a new light. And that new light is a bright, positive one. It literally means to set right the way in which we influence groups of people or communities – and there’s nothing wrong with that.

In my first book in 2008 I put forward the PC Principle which, to break it down, simply means being the most politically correct person in the room at any given time. And how, over time, how you should be able to infuse this attitude into your real, authentic, character – thus becoming a truly honourable, respected and admired leader.

When I researched political correctness and the origins of political persuasion I was, as I’m sure you are, quite dismayed and even offended by the shallow attempts to manipulate our opinions through carefully crafted words. For example, and I’m sorry if this polarises my readers, “Stop the boats”, among other slogans used in past political rallies is so simple, that it doesn’t actually say anything of substance. Instead, it conveys any multitude of meanings that a voter can bend to their own desires. For instance, a hardline racist might lock it in as a slogan to stop all immigration, whereas a less hardline voter may see it as an attempt to stop the horrible and dangerous people trade. So, referring back to our definition of political correctness, how might we set this right OR is it the best thing to say to ensure the most PC result?

As US President Kennedy once famously said, “you can’t please all the people all the time”. To be an effective leader, you must first accept this. The ‘Stop the Boats’ slogan was a vain attempt to win a popularity race. The politician was trying to be popular – and this is never a good sign for a leader. Leaders become popular because the decisions they make result in the best overall outcome for those following them. In the high-stakes world of global politics, there will never be consensus over ANY major policy decision. And a leader must accept that.

In business, your stakes usually aren’t quite as high. Although they may seem to be sometimes! Being politically correct can usually be demonstrated in meetings, speaking engagements, team gatherings and social gatherings. And here are my TWO tips for getting started:

  1. There are NO ABSOLUTES. Let’s say you say “No one likes Chilli-flavoured yoghurt”. Sure, there probably aren’t many – but by making it an absolute statement, you run the very real risk of someone dissenting and losing them and others within your audience. Check your words and refrain from using words like MUST HAVE, ONLY, WORST, etc. (Now I know that if you’re in marketing this will be a shock, but we’re trying to retain the focus of our followers, not trying to sell something once).  These words are very easy to counter and intelligent people don’t like being told there aren’t any alternatives.
  2. If in doubt – find out. One of the best ways to reduce our own prejudice is to find out more about the subject. I recall taking on a writing job that required quite in-depth research into Australian Aboriginal culture and history. To this day I rate this as one of my most eye-opening and rewarding experiences as it forced me to go beyond any pre-existing beliefs and truly recognise the facts and some of the terrible things done to this culture over the last 200+ years. But this principle should apply to any culture, idea, process, job or whatever it is that you don’t know about and therefore judge without knowledge.

I used to ask my students to raise their hands if they had any prejudices. I’d slowly see one or two hands rise and people looking around at each other to see who these terrible people might be. Then I’d raise my hand and say – “we ALL do” – it’s normal. A 2005 New York University study found that everyone has a fear response to people of a starkly different appearance (think black and white or someone with a profound physical deformity). But the same study also concluded that those who had an intimate interracial relationship had NO fear response to that other appearance. This, among other studies, goes to confirm tip number 2. The more you know, the less you fear, and the less likely you are to say something that hurts or offends that person through ignorance alone.

The Final Word

Why is it important to be PC? At it’s core, it is a character trait and not a disguise that we put on to ‘get ahead’ or to ‘placate the masses’. A true sign of character is to respect that everyone is different and move beyond tolerance to acceptance. As I say in my book, that does NOT mean that you have to agree with everyone else’s beliefs or opinions. But you do need to accept they they will hold these values dear and tight – and no amount of argument, ridicule, aggression or avoidance will change it. Being PC will win you the support you need to lead a diverse team. And the research clearly indicates that diversity leads to better overall performance for almost any organisation.

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