How to De-stigmatize Differences
Hope is no strategy for creating a modern work environment.
I’m starting a movement against “political correctness.” I think it makes people mute on subjects they should be working to solve. I polled my network to ask how on earth we’ve developed a mainstream work culture that expects people to sound “politically correct.” At Medigram, we believe it’s more productive to replace “politically correct” with “diplomatic and skillful.”
None of my #7175 followers on Linked in gave me any advice for how we got into this politically correct mess whereas people deny and deflect that we’re all different people with different backgrounds that need to work together productively — and it’s a damn hard challenge. If we can’t face and name the challenges, there is no road to solving. As an aside, some people I admire “liked” what many would consider to be a bold post. In it I stated that “political correctness” is “uninspiring, dishonest, confusing and promotes denial.”
For background, I’ve had numerous business and healthcare system executives ask me for my opinion on why I thought their organizations continue to struggle in attracting and retaining diverse talent. I’ve been asked this multiple times a quarter for several years by different executives and board directors. On the other hand, I’ve had numerous high potential and high performing and diverse talent ask me why leadership pages remain homogenous; they recount situations that true professionals would consider repulsive at worst and distasteful at best. These situations caused me to go into problem solving mode. Not just for myself but for others as well. While the factors for these challenges are many, I focus this post on the notion of trust, the foundation of a modern work culture. I’ve pasted the Merriam-Webster definition of trust below. Obviously, the more we have in common with someone, the more familiar they feel and it’s easier to trust them. The more different people are in any way: personality, skill set, background, culture, the harder but then it becomes mission critical to build and maintain trust.
Because increasingly, team collaboration and teams of teams are required to solve ever more complex problems, the old model of leadership depicted to the left in the image below doesn’t work anymore. This is most true in professional contexts. This is specifically acute in the case of leading knowledge workers. They require trust for motivation. You can’t leave the cultivation of trust in a diverse workforce to chance. People need expectations, codes of conduct, mission, vision, values, norms, and rituals to bind them and build trust. What do most organizations do to accommodate an increasingly diverse workforce? Some welcome interviewers to have a tattoo, wear polka dots, and wear pink hair. Others have robust Diversity and Inclusion/D&I programs that also focus on legal and compliance issues related to diversity. This is not nearly enough. What’s required is an honest dialogue of gender, class, and race…the tough topics.
Being “politically correct” prevents us from speaking directly about these difficult, real topics that affect us all at work: gender, class, nationality. You can’t solve things you can’t name. I’m inspired by high performing European board members. They’re extremely clear on these issues. For example, Brits are blatant about their peerage system and its effects. It can be done directly, diplomatically, and even with humor. European board directors seem free to be honest and direct about these topics. The best ones are diplomatic and skillful when broaching these difficult topics but they do address them — for the sake of personal and professional effectiveness. How did we Americans get into the habit of acting and pretending like these topics don’t exist? How did political correctness enter our professional business culture? To make progress, we have to de-stigmatize addressing these subjects.
I started acting on my view that we should be direct and honest about these subjects. At first, it made some people uncomfortable. I was frequently met with silence. However, research shows that proactively addressing difficult topics can help solve for one tough topic, sexism for example.  I learned to ease into the topics before delivering the “message.” It’s my aim to do it in a neutral but firm and non emotional manner that one might use to speak about non functional, business, or user requirements in product development. What did I learn? Three techniques:
- I frame why I’m going to broach a topic. Example “ I need to discuss with you gender, background, etc. in this scenario because it is a factor in planning for the best outcome or discussion.”
- I focus on the meta statistics and use a blameless approach. Political correctness has created a lot of denial and ignorance for challenges that many people face in the workplace. Example “I am not saying this is your personal practice; however you need to be aware that research shows X, Y, Z statistic.” (have cited reference ready).
- Focus on what you need to make happen. Example: “Our customer and user base is extraordinarily diverse. The same workforces that created “One Size fits all” and “one size fits most” products don’t cut it here. Since you and I know that to be true, what are the solutions to drive productive work between these wildly different people with different backgrounds and interests? How do we create mutual trust between all necessary parties?” See if you can’t name it, the team can’t solve it.
We’re enormously ambitious and committed to our mission at Medigram to save hundreds of thousands of lives and build an iconic company. To do that, we have to be crystal clear with self and others about what the real challenges are that may hinder our ability to solve. I’m not leaving things, even those “out of my control” to chance. Hope is not the practical strategy for overcoming generations-old challenges. I’m addressing these difficult topics directly when valuable, whether it is about myself; when relevant or necessary, I am also addressing colleagues and their roles in these situations. I’m asking those that are capable of it for their leadership in driving this new model. I will continue to practice being as diplomatic and skillful as possible while being direct. I will not be perfect, but I am sure this has and will continue to radically increase trust and personal effectiveness. Please try it yourself and tell us how it goes.
 Johnson et al. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0749597814000715
By: Sherri Douville CEO & Board Member at Medigram, Inc. https://www.linkedin.com/in/sdouville/