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There’s good news and bad news about our current preoccupation with eliminating offensive language and behaviors from the workplace.

The good news is that the feelings and experiences of a wider swath of humanity matter more now. Women, people of color, LGBTQ individuals, immigrants and folks with disabilities are no longer expected to simply conform and comply, which is good for morale, productivity and the creation of a more humane society. The bad news is that the focus on avoiding “offense” is ineffective, even harmful, because it’s looking in the wrong direction.

“Offense” is about feelings; a person feels offended when they experience another person’s behavior as insulting or disrespectful. There are two problems with over-focusing on avoiding offense.

The first is that anyone can be offended by anything. In a diverse workforce, the possibility that someone will be offended by any particular behavior or decision is higher than ever before. This possibility can (and does) paralyze leaders out of fear, preventing them from making bold decisions — or any decisions. A hyperfocus on avoiding offense can exacerbate a fear-based culture, create a walking-on-eggshells environment or fuel leadership inaction.

The second reason is that keeping everyone happy all the time is not the purpose of an effective leader or a mission-driven organization. An effective leader’s purpose is to make decisions, aligned with clear goals and values, to ensure the organization’s mission is realized. Such a process may be collaborative and generally respectful, but it’s not about pleasing all the people all of the time. It’s about knowing whose feelings and opinions matter most. Creating a more inclusive workplace isn’t about including everything and everyone because that’s neither possible nor effective.

However, the more important issue hidden underneath the preoccupation with “offense” is that creating a more inclusive workplace isn’t always about feelings and opinions! Creating a more inclusive workplace is about getting out of each other’s way. It’s about creating an environment where brilliance and excellence flourish, because more people can bring more of their full selves into that environment. What gets in the way is less what is “offensive” and more what is oppressive.  Read the rest on Workforce Magazine!

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