People are defined by their deeds, not their words. And yet, our words both reflect and reinforce cultural norms. In other words, how we communicate has the power to change human behavior on an enormous scale.
Consider the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. They are just words. But those words played an enormous role in the creation of a great nation. They defined the behavior of a culture that changed the world.
Words incite action. When words and the ideals they represent gain traction, they can change the trajectory of an entire society for better or worse. There is no more visible sign of where we’re heading than the growing pervasiveness of political correctness.
On the surface, the idea of filtering our communication so as not to exclude or offend anyone seems fairly benign, almost Pollyannaish. Maybe that explains how it has so insidiously crept into every aspect of our culture, but its effect has been anything but benign.
Political correctness has had a powerful influence on how we interact with each other, teach our kids, and manage our companies. It’s an existential threat to the meritocracy and personal accountability at the heart of free market capitalism. It’s toxic to the performance and competitiveness of our people, our companies and our economy.
You see, human behavior is all about incentives. All things being equal, people will do what’s in their own best interest.
If people believe that rewards are based solely on their own merits – that the sky’s the limit and how far they go in life rests solely on their shoulders – that’s an incentive to be self-reliant and reach for the stars. And they will generally reach the highest levels of achievement their capabilities and circumstances permit.
There’s proof of that. Those are, in fact, the principles that built America. Everyone gets life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The rest is up to the individual. That simple mechanism is responsible for creating the entrepreneurs, innovators and business leaders of the free world. That’s what created the American Dream.
But if you remove the incentive, all that changes.
If people believe it makes no difference how they perform – that everyone’s the same, competition is bad, everyone’s a winner, and exceptional qualities will not be rewarded or even recognized – they’re left with nothing to strive for. Stripped of the will to achieve, they’ll settle into a life of dependency and mediocrity.
Again, it’s all about incentives. All things being equal, people will do what they’re incentivized to do.
So we can all agree that political correctness levels the playing field, removes incentives to excel, and diminishes meritocracy and personal accountability. Well, that has a ripple effect on team performance and effectiveness. We have a term for the resultant state of organizational malaise and mediocrity. It’s called bureaucracy.
While the word conjures up images of mindless drones shuffling around like real-life zombies under the sickly hued fluorescent lights of the local planning department, state Department of Motor Vehicles, or U.S. Postal Service, bureaucracy can creep into any business or company.
It’s simple, really. Just add political correctness to any organization and watch the bureaucratic behavior take over. Think about it.
Bureaucrats do only what they’re programmed to do because there’s no incentive to do more. And since there are no incentives to excel, they’ll do as little as they have to do to skate by. They follow rigid process because that’s how things are done. They’re the keepers of the status quo that stifles innovation and creativity.
You can trace all sorts of chronic business ills to bureaucratic behavior.
Besides reduced company performance and effectiveness, it leads to ever-increasing organizational bloat and complexity. Bureaucratic leaders are always looking for clever ways to increase their budget, grow their organization, and expand their power base.
It leads to dysfunctional behavior that resists change, improvement, initiative, transparency, and anything resembling personal responsibility. It leads to a whole slew of corporate maladies including cronyism, nepotism and the Peter Principle – the promotion of incompetent people.
Bureaucratic managers won’t give employees genuine feedback for fear of being sued or accused of harassment, discrimination, being a bully, or creating a hostile work environment. And they certainly can’t publicly praise anyone – that might make others feel inadequate. The result is a culture wrought with fear and loathing.
There’s a famous quote, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” It’s often attributed to Edmund Burke, but many great thinkers, from Plato and Tolstoy to John Stuart Mill and Albert Einstein have made similar observations.
What I find particularly disturbing about the political correctness epidemic is the way so many CEOs and business leaders who are paid the big bucks to act on behalf of their companies are instead behaving like scared little bureaucrats and allowing the spread of this scourge on their watch.
I expect that sort of behavior from politicians and administrators, not from corporate executives and business leaders. After all, if they don’t have the courage to do what’s right, stand up for the meritocracy that made our nation great and carry the torch for the American Dream, who will?