Fostering a healthy culture on your team goes beyond promoting tolerance. We need management skills that are flexible enough to harness the beauty of tolerance in the workplace while avoiding its dangers.
“Tolerance” has been a buzzword in western cultures for some time now, and the current environment in places like the United States is bringing it back to the fore. People are talking about how we should interact across societal divides; how we should treat people who believe and behave in ways different from us, even in ways we disapprove. Is tolerance really the answer? Is it enough to acknowledge we have differences and let them exist?
The concept of tolerance can be looked at from many vantage points. Our strength is the intercultural perspective, so let’s frame the discussion there.
The Cultures that Care about Tolerance
Cultures in which tolerance is a relevant discussion have some distinguishing characteristics. It is national leaders in the west who tend to champion the idea of tolerance. These cultures are largely Innocence/Guilt oriented and fall primarily in the IG sector of Three Colors of Worldview circle. Members of such cultures are concerned at a basic level with “doing the right thing” and “being fair.”
Such cultures tend to be Individual Accountability oriented, where individuals take responsibility for their actions and expect others to do the same. They tend to be Directive Destiny oriented: inclined to see the world as a place where individuals can have a great deal of influence on their life outcome. Such cultures also generally favor a Direct style of Communication and are Achieved Status oriented, with status being earned instead of inherited. All of these are significant in motivating members of the culture to advocate for tolerant coexistence in society.
How do these factors motivate tolerance? Well, if you are viewed as personally accountable for pursuing a good situation in life and are expected to earn your status through hard work and resourcefulness, all while communicating directly and frankly based on who you are - you must have an environment where you can do this. It must be a place with room for people’s differences to co-exist openly and be owned without getting in the way of the good life. Fostering this kind of environment has become increasingly challenging as expat communities and other forms of diversity grow around the globe – hence the need many feel for people to learn tolerance.
This idea of a fair playing field is a culturally-based motivation, and when bounded appropriately, it is a beautiful thing. But there is also a dark side, a slippery slope to manage or it will spiral down into a culture missing important foundations.
Is Tolerance all you need?
Advocates sometimes imply that learning tolerance will teach us how to live in the same space. But trying to tolerate each other is insufficient. In fact, when a pursuit of tolerance becomes too powerful in society, the opposite actually happens. That is the main idea we want to highlight in this article.
The concept of tolerance in itself only highlights differences, it does not equip you to appreciate or live with people.
We will also talk about how to protect employee engagement and creativity in this kind of environment.
The Unintended Results
Pursuing tolerance as an end in itself leads to a slippery slope. You may recognize this progression if you’ve followed recent headlines from the West:
People stop engaging constructively with opposing views and divide into groups like themselves.
As people forget how to debate constructively, toxic conflict arises.
People are driven to increasingly black and white thinking.
Society is further polarized and tolerance disappears.
But wait! Isn’t that the reason we need to learn tolerance? Isn’t a polarized society the original problem? Ironically, yes. Consider how pursuing tolerance can be self-defeating outside of a larger framework of intercultural awareness.
1st Step: People stop engaging constructively with opposing views and divide into groups like themselves. It happens like this: when tolerance becomes very important in society, some people will act out on the assumption that there should be very few limits on what they can say or do. There is an easy reply if someone wants to oppose you – “Well, it’s my opinion, who are you to criticize me?” So the boundaries of what’s acceptable begin expanding, and there is a sentiment in the air that this is how it should be. This may also be backed up by jurisprudence, things like a defamation code where you can be labelled as discriminatory, or worse, if you oppose someone’s view publicly. Because of this, people become more hesitant to discuss the differences that come out. Over time people learn to shut up as soon as there’s an opposing view in the room. It seems like tolerance. But underneath something is being lost: the skills needed to have a healthy debate. There’s a dangerous form of political correctness that comes with that, where people avoid saying “I don’t agree with you.” The end result is that after people stop engaging with each other, they begin connecting more exclusively with people like themselves. They find it more and more difficult to have somebody around them with an opposing view.
2nd Step: As people forget how to debate constructively, toxic conflict arises. When political correctness becomes the police force of tolerance, people don’t feel safe anymore. It’s no longer possible to feel safe in a space with opposing views, so people don’t easily entrust their opposing view to the person in front of them. As people in society segregate based on issues they were supposed to become more tolerant about, people lose the ability to engage with good questions. They forget how to ask good questions and be self-critical, and lose the concept of a healthy debate. Ironically, not engaging with each other leads to more vitriolic opposition – especially around the causes people really identify with and feel strongly about. People start to take opposing viewpoints personally, as a personal attack. This has manifested in a nasty way in current politics, especially in Europe and the United States. If somebody holds an opposing viewpoint, people assume that means you can’t have a relationship - that they deserve no respect. And that has resulted in people promoting a toxic fabric of opposing views in offensive ways. Just look at the last American elections, or the election debates in Europe. Part of this may be that people just don’t know how to handle controversy any more. We have a whole generation of youth ignorant of the art of rejecting a person’s viewpoint while holding on to respect for them as an individual.
3rd Step: People are driven to increasingly black and white thinking. In an Innocence-Guilt society where opposing views are being argued people will ask “What’s your position on this?” What’s implied is that they expect you to have a position. If you are a person of directive destiny and individual accountability, you should have thought this through to the point where you make a choice. It is so sad that people often see it as weakness if your answer is “Well, I can see truth and merit on both sides of this argument.” Sometimes just in order to not appear weak, people end up choosing sides. They would rather show strength and voice an opinion based on weak arguments or faulty information than admit they don’t know. This mix of cultural factors is one thing that drives people to black and white thinking. And with a lack of constructive engagement people do very little refining of their thinking. Instead they entrench themselves on one side of an argument based on stereotypes of the opposition. People may not even realize there’s more to an issue than what they hear from family, friends and their media outlets of choice.
4th Step: Society is further polarized and tolerance disappears. As opposing sides exchange fire, it drives wedges deeper between different groups. Society becomes more polarized and people resort to impersonal exchanges because it’s not right to disagree in person. Ironically, the very tolerance we were pursuing becomes hard to find.
Our international director Marco Blankenburgh was talking to a man from the Gallup Foundation a few weeks ago, and he lifted the veil a bit on the report they are going to publish in October. One of the things that came out there is that employee engagement across the world is dropping. Marco was reflecting on that from an intercultural perspective and mentioned, “Yes, if we’ve created a culture where voicing opposition is not safe anymore, then I’ll stop doing it.” He calls it the “whatever mentality.” In pursuit of tolerance, of valuing everyone’s opinions equally, we’ve too often just created an environment where opposing viewpoints cannot coexist out loud. People at work just keep their heads down and make sure they don’t get into trouble.
There’s a big need to rediscover what it means to debate things. To embrace a creative tension that leads to a healthier fabric in society and healthier solutions. Employee engagement is dropping because people don’t feel safe voicing their opinions or ideas, but in the midst of it, every company we’re talking to is crying for more innovation, more creativity! We’re shooting ourselves in the foot - left, right and center – by creating this culture where political correctness and tolerance are our taskmasters. The unintended consequence is that creativity drops, employee engagement drops and as a result we don’t get the best out of our people anymore.
What you can do about it
The opposing forces are not going away any time soon. Our ability to manage polarities is becoming more and more important - especially the ability to do it in a way where we still respect each other and do our best to leverage the beauty in opposing views. We need to rediscover what it means to harness tolerance and make sure it is promoted when it needs to be - but also learn when to allow and promote healthy debate and healthy opposing views, and to store respect and shake hands with those who might have a totally different opinion than we do.
This is where the role of polarity management comes in, where skillful managers are able to create room for opposing views and steer people towards the creation of what we call a Third Cultural Space.
Our ‘Four Pillars of Intercultural Teaming’ talk about the four elements that need to be discussed for a sense of trust and safety to return to a team or organization. We look at how to identify the agreed-upon behaviors that nurture trust, that create healthy communication processes and healthy communication content for the culture we want to create. We explore how to make sure everyone is involved in a purposeful way, serving the bigger purpose of the team and fulfilling a role to make that purpose a reality; correcting each other in a way that is meaningful and appropriate, and celebrating success at the individual and team level in an appropriate way. And finally, answering the question – “How strong do relationships between the different members of this team need to be, and how do we make that happen?”
The world is too complex to deal with our issues the way we’re currently dealing with them. Fortunately there is a framework for relating with people from different cultures and different value systems that sets the scene for appreciation of a whole person, and the kind of creativity our people are capable of.
I really plead that people pursue the skills needed to create a Third Cultural Space – where healthy debate can take place, where questions can be asked and where we tone down the artificial political correctness and instead foster positive tension, creative tension that births solutions for the complex world we live in.
Quickly becoming the global preferred choice for Inter-Cultural Intelligence development, KnowledgeWorkx promotes mutual understanding of other cultures and perspectives in the workplace, and helps teams to develop the intercultural capacity necessary to thrive in a globalized world.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.