We live in a sound bite culture. That’s fine for the media, for headlines, and for tweets. But when words and phrases take on a life of their own, when they dictate our actions and define our culture, when we all march in lockstep to the same drumbeat, that’s when words spell trouble.
Take “diversity” and “inclusion,” for example. Go to just about any company’s website and you’ll find something that reads more or less like what I found on Microsoft’s “about” page:
“Global diversity and inclusion. Microsoft believes that diversity enriches our performance and products, the communities where we live and work, and the lives of our employees.”
While that may sound like generic fluff, clicking on the link opens up more content than most companies have on their entire website. It has its own vision, mission, strategies, and business plan. And the phrase “diversity and inclusion” is appeasingly and robotically repeated over and over and over again.
Not to pick on Microsoft – it was just a random choice. But here’s the thing.
When diversity is mandated to the point where more qualified and meritorious people and vendors are passed over for jobs, promotions, and business in favor of members of a protected class, that’s when diversity actually becomes discrimination.
Likewise, when individual performance can no longer be praised because others might feel left out or less worthy, that’s when the concept of inclusion begins to erode a fundamental driving force behind personal performance: recognition and reward.
I don’t know if that is specifically happening at Microsoft, but it is happening at companies and schools all over the western world. More and more every day. So, there is a very dark side to the nearly fanatical devotion and adherence to the viral and sweeping mandate those two, simple words represent.
On the surface, this seems like a “slippery slope” or an “unintended consequences” type of problem: What begins as a noble effort takes on a life of its own and ends up doing far more harm than good. That might describe the effect, but it does not explain the cause.
And while there is certainly an aspect of political correctness, that also fails to get to the very root of the problem.
What’s actually going on is a sort of mob, hive, or herd mentality – an insidious groupthink that presents a significant long-term threat to the performance and competitiveness of our people, our companies, and our entire economy.
And it’s evidenced by far more words and phrases than just diversity and inclusion.
I’ve often wondered how an amorphous tag line as completely devoid of meaning as “Hope and Change” could have helped Barack Obama to come from behind and win the 2008 presidential election, but it’s actually a perfect example of the superficial sound bite mentality that’s become the norm in America.
Perhaps everyone’s just too busy watching YouTube and reality shows, tweeting and updating Facebook pages, buying gadgets they can’t afford on Amazon and eBay, blurry eyes virtually glued to smartphones and tablets, to bother understanding the meaning or the implications behind the words, anymore.
So when we come across a fad that promises wonderful things, we get right in line and follow the crowd. When we hear a phrase that sounds so good we can almost taste the utopia, we blindly vote “yes.” And when we hear a fear-mongering cry, we say, “tell us what to do to avoid this terrible fate.”
How else could the theory of man-made global warming or climate change – whatever Al Gore calls it these days – possibly have gotten an entire planet to go completely bananas over anything green, clean, or renewable, to the point where entire industries are decimated, competitive landscapes are remade, and our freedom of choice is severely limited.
It sure isn’t science, unless you consider hoards of climatologists voting their opinions like some sort of “ask the audience” lifeline on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire to be science. Must be the new and improved “crowd sourcing” version of the scientific method. I know. We’ll call it Science 2.0.
That’s what we do nowadays. We come up with a new belief system that subverts actual reasoning and logic and call it version 2.0.
Just look at our new version of the American economy: Web 2.0. Where anyone with an IP address and a MacBook sitting at home in his pajamas or using Wi-Fi at a Starbucks thinks he has a great job working for free on open source software writing terabytes of user-generated content.
As internet pioneer Jaron Lanier so aptly put it, “[Web 2.0] screws the middle class. Only the aggregator (like Google, for instance) gets rich, while the actual producers of content get poor.”
So why are thousands, if not millions of people getting on board. Well, it’s the next big thing. It feeds their egos. It’s addictive. It’s Me 2.0. It’s all about me: my blog, my content, my pictures, my videos, my selfies. Look at me. I don’t need a job. I have a personal brand. I’m an entrepreneur. I’m a CEO of one. And I’m broke, like everyone else.
Next thing you know, we’ll all be collaborating, crowdsourcing and crowdfunding our diverse little heads off on nothing but cause marketing campaigns. Our EQs will be so high on employee engagement that our virtual workforces without titles, bosses or any organizational structure or personal accountability whatsoever will all be joining in the conversation. And nobody will ever be offended or excluded because every decision, no matter how trivial, will have to be voted on and approved by the collective.
Centuries ago, Machiavelli wrote about the evils of blindly following the status quo. More recently, George Orwell warned us about the future in 1984. And Ayn Rand sounded almost fanatical in her fear that we would someday lose our personal identities, drive, and accountability to the crushing bureaucracy and mundane mediocrity of the collective.
The day that mankind becomes peoplekind, that’s when we’ll know we’re there.
Steve Tobak is a management consultant, columnist, former senior executive and author of "Real Leaders Don't Follow: Being Extraordinary in the Age of the Entrepreneur." Learn more, contact Tobak or follow his new blog at stevetobak.com. Any opinions expressed are those of the columnist.