Cancel Culture, Revisited

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Any good business person will tell you that failures are a necessary ingredient of success. They demonstrate ambition to push limits, resilience against setbacks, and the creativity inherent in trial and error.

Yet this same principle is rarely applied to the rules of engagement between co-workers. An isolated slip-up of questionable language, for example, can lead to HR action, and a one-off lapse of judgment is neither encouraged nor welcomed as part of the chaotic process of growth. 

But should it be?

Like a virus, today’s “cancel culture” has progressed from a feeding frenzy happening on our Twitter feeds to a way of engaging with each other in our boardrooms. This outright dismissal of people with differing opinions is simply not sustainable for our organizations, or our mental health! 

Instead, I’d like to echo — but reframe — a suggestion made by outspoken entertainment critic Louis Virtel, who recently suggested moving to a “consequences culture.” I agree with him and would add one more bit of alliteration, I would like to see us move to “conversation culture.” 

Before exploring this concept further, let me be clear that in no way am I encouraging giving a pass to colleagues who exhibit consistent or egregious behavior toward others. This article is meant to explore the far more common experience of interacting and communicating with others who have no idea the effect of their words and, more important, would be horrified if they did know. 

Seize the Awk

As we embark on a new year and a new decade, we have an opportunity to redefine our expectations of one another on our collective journey toward societal progress. The fatigue with political correctness — including among a surprising 79% of Americans younger than 24 — means that the sweet hope of universal respect has curdled into the bitterness of pseudo-censorship. This is where the idea of conversation culture comes in.

As individuals, we should consider adjusting our automatic reaction to comments in the workplace to be forgiveness instead of outrage. Rather than righteous backlash, we might welcome the “offender” into conversation and offer our perspective on the issue — how certain words or actions might make us feel diminished as competent professionals based on our personal experiences. We might even seek out awkward conversations that help us better understand our differences.

As organizations, we need to train our leaders to handle disagreements between staff with an understanding of the unintended consequences of public shaming. While overtly malicious or repetitive actions should be treated swiftly and seriously — including with legal steps, if necessary — the more innocuous behaviors or language that tend to displease those of us in the “woke” population might be treated as mistakes worthy of guidance on a better approach. 

Calling out a manager during a teamwide meeting for some version of an all-Millennials-are-all-entitled joke, for example, might fuel the flames of ageism rather than put out the fire. Taking a public stance adds highly influential social pressure to a situation that can be more effectively addressed through a one-on-one conversation. Even worse, this approach can lead to a phenomenon called the “backfire effect,” where opinions become even more entrenched when overtly challenged. 

In workplace cultures where conversations claim top priority, the power to change minds starts with giving the other person enough respect to trust their ability to listen, learn, and grow. As I’ve advised elsewhere, the best way to handle an emotional reaction, such as one that results from minor outrage or offense, is to neutralize it … and then quickly move on

Saving Grace (Not Face)

My experience is that education through the style of grace demanded of us in a conversations culture will move us further down the continuum of respect than the current status quo of vocal divisiveness. It acknowledges that we’re all fallible humans, and — so long as one’s intentions are good (which, of course, isn’t always the case) — it encourages honest conversations that build unexpected relationships.

In contrast, bringing down the hammer of Thor every time an error is made will backfire against your goal of creating a more civil, modernized workplace. Instead, these outsized actions will foster anger and distrust, shut down the possibility of an open dialogue, and deepen divisions among groups that would benefit from learning more about one another.

Tension and conflict are so 2019. Let’s commit to doing 2020 better — recognizing that real greatness will require real mistakes. Will we be resilient enough to achieve it?  

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