Politeness and politics: the deadly duo when it comes to performance – Colin Browne

Let’s call a spade a spade. If you could speak your mind and get away with it, you would. It’s natural to be sensitive to other people’s feelings, but when a colleague or employee crosses a line, given the option, you’d tell it to them straight.

In so doing, you’d be able to rip ambiguity out of your relationships, and as long as there is sufficient oversight to prevent anyone from being abusive, or a bully, the odds are we’d have a healthier level of understanding.

That’s a theory, anyway.

There are two major problems with it though:

1.    You
2.    Everyone else

You probably agree with the opening paragraph, but possibly only because of the nuance. You’d do it, because you can get away with it. What about if you got challenged every time?

Management has lost the art of being direct. When direct conversations take place these days, it’s usually only after any hope of a good outcome has been abandoned and the guns have been placed on the table.

Direct therefore is code for ugly. But that’s not what it is supposed to mean. Direct conversations can be uncomfortable, and they can get heated, but they can also be liberating for everyone, when we’ve all unburdened our chests.

It’s very likely the fact that direct conversations are uncomfortable that they are so uncommon these days. But it could also be about something else: political correctness.

This is the everyone else part of the problem.

Political correctness is designed to defang our language and provide a set of laws for how to use it responsibly. But actually, being open and honest already did that job.

I’m personally a big supporter of raising office language to an above-conversational level. We probably all drop the odd unpleasant epithet from time to time, but there’s no room for the worst of your general day-to-day chatter at work.

And I think that’s enough.

Political correctness over the years and around the world has done little more than lay a field of landmines across our conversations, ready to be triggered by the most sensitive among us.

Most people don’t need to be schooled in preferred nomenclature, so all political correctness does is arm those people who choose to be offended. It’s a parachute out of a tough conversation which is rarely, truly warranted.

If anyone ever says anything to you that is genuinely offensive, you probably ought to punch them for it. That’s been a nice, neat way of dealing with things for generations before this one.

Without the ability to have frank conversations, we lose much of the essence of leadership, particularly when it comes to driving performance. When an employee or a colleague starts to lag, what can possibly be achieved, for either of you, in looking for gentle ways to express your anxiety, concern or even outright anger?

Performance depends on clarity. Clarity depends on language. It’s hard to see how we do ourselves any favours by limiting that.

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