How Much Performance Is Self-Censorship Costing You?

How Much Performance Is Self-Censorship Costing You?

02.26.13Jonathan Stearn

There are a few simple ways we can all work to move beyond self-censorship and challenge people and organizations to be their best

Dr. Ben Carson spoke at the White House prayer breakfast earlier this month. You might have heard about it, as he caused quite a stir. During his amusing speech laced with parables, he offered some provocative ideas on both our tax system and health care system. Here is a link to the YouTube video, which has received well over a million views.

Dr. Carson rose from poverty to become a world-class physician, philanthropist, and winner of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He is currently the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital, though he just announced he is leaving that position. Dr. Carson’s inspiring story is related in his book Gifted Hands, which was used as the basis for a TV movie of the same title starring Cuba Gooding, Jr.

Knowing that his ideas might upset some people in the prayer breakfast audience, Dr. Carson set the stage for his remarks by offering an observation on the hazards of excessive political correctness. He said:

The [politically correct] police are out in force at all times…And we’ve reached the point where people are afraid to actually talk about what they want to say because somebody might be offended…It puts a muzzle on them…And what we need to do is start talking about things, talking about things that are important…forget about unanimity of speech and unanimity of thought, and we need to concentrate on being respectful to those people with whom we disagree.

An amusing illustration of this phenomenon was captured in a scene from the Ben Stiller-Jennifer Aniston movie Along Came Polly, when Stiller’s mother referred to a waiter at an Indian restaurant as a “nice Native American man” – when he was in fact of Indian descent! See the short clip of this scene here.

Sadly, there are perils of excessive political correctness in organizations, too. They usually manifest as self-censorship due to social norms getting in the way of expecting – and demanding – the best possible performance.  For example:

  • A front-line worker doesn’t make a suggestion she believes will improve operational performance for fear of upstaging her supervisor
  • Leadership team members do not hold each other accountable because they are sensitive about questioning their colleague’s expertise or approach
  • A manager hesitates to hold new employees to strict performance standards in order to avoid being perceived as unreasonable for not giving them sufficient time to get oriented to the company
  • A project with doubtful value continues to move forward since no one wants to challenge the sponsor’s judgment

And what are the costs of this behavior? Energy is diverted from value-producing activities to managing interactions. Performance issues are not addressed. Promising ideas are withheld. Disagreements are not raised and managed. And perhaps most disturbing of all, trust is eroded (or not built in the first place). When people can’t be truthful with each other – in respectful ways – there is no foundation for high performance. Feedback is watered down (or not provided), learning is stunted, and performance falters.

There are a few simple ways we can all work to move beyond self-censorship and challenge people and organizations to be their best.

  • Begin talking with colleagues about the degree of self-censorship in your organization to get a pulse check and compare your perceptions with those of others in the organization.
  • Be mindful about when you are holding back feedback or ideas due to fear of offending someone. Simply keeping track of how often this happens, with whom, and on what topics can help you understand how it is affecting performance.
  • Select just one or two of these issues and make concerted efforts to test whether they are truly landmines to be avoided or non-issues that are impeding performance and growth.
  • Be clear about the topics that you would find offensive – or that others might assume would offend you – and make a point of inviting feedback in these areas. Colleagues may be unnecessarily tentative in raising issues with you, either due to signals you have sent consciously or unconsciously or due to their own sensitivities.
  • Challenge yourself and others to explore: “If we had no self-imposed social constraints or norms, what would we expect of our peers? Of one another? Of our entire organization?” Then translate some of these expectations into near-term, actionable challenges.
  • Deliver the challenge for improved performance in respectful, even-handed ways…you might be surprised at how people respond, and what they are capable of, when they finally confront what’s expected!

I’m eager to hear your experiences with self-censorship in your organization and your contributions to this list.

To what degree does excessive self-censorship impede your organizations potential? What additional techniques do you employ to limit its hazards?

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