Keep Mum She's Not So Dumb: Careless Talk Costs Lives', WW II poster (detail), Harold Foster, 1941
Ideas for Leaders #147

Political Correctness Helps Expression in Mixed-Sex Teams

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Key Concept

In recent years, speaking in a ‘politically correct’ way has been criticised by many as excessive restriction on the freedom of speech. What was initiated as a positive way to minimize offence, had been taken too far and had come to be viewed negatively. But now, research demonstrates that in organizational settings, and in mixed-sex groups in particular, being politically correct is still a very positive step that can go far to facilitate better team work.

Idea Summary

In January 2011, a football commentator found himself unceremoniously fired after he made a remark about the appearance of a female match official, and questioned whether another was capable of understanding the ‘offside rule.’ Many called his comments sexist and ‘prehistoric.’ However, there were also some people that suggested the commentator’s termination was a result of the ‘politically correct brigade’ taking over our society.

Not surprisingly, the notion of political correctness has been a controversial one; is it a justified way to encourage civility, or a slippery-slope into censorship? In the corporate context, how does political correctness influence interactions between male and female team members? This is an important question for leaders, as organizations spend a significant amount of time, effort and money on training programs aimed at eliminating gender inequities and sexist language at work. They want to know, is it worth it?

Considering this, a group of researchers from institutions including Haas School of Business undertook experiments to see how political correctness may influence processes in mixed-sex, and even other types of demographically heterogeneous teams. One of the researchers, Professor Jennifer Chatman, said she was interested in examining how political correctness might be operating below the surface to make it seem that there is less stereotyping than actually exists.

What they found is that political correctness actually promotes idea generation in mixed-sex work groups and interactions, and reduces feelings of uncertainty. As such, in mixed-sex groups, the effort to be politically correct is justifiable not only on moral grounds, but also by the valuable consequences it can have for facilitating the exchange of ideas. In same-sex/homogenous groups, however, being politically correct does not necessarily have the same effects. “We think this is because groups in which members are more demographically similar are confronted with fewer issues about their demographic composition,” notes Chatman.

Their findings are relevant to other types of demographically diverse teams too, with diversities such as gender, race, physical disability, etc.

Methodology: The researchers undertook three experiments to test their hypotheses. In the first experiment, they investigated whether potential social sanctions—such as embarrassment, social rejection, etc. - that might result from the use of sexist language are more salient when the “political correctness frame” (PC frame) is invoked. In the second experiment, they compared how mixed and same-sex groups respond to the PC frame, hypothesizing that it will enhance idea expression more in mixed-sex groups. Finally, they investigated the mediating role of uncertainty by both manipulating it directly, and measuring it from video-taped observations of each group’s interaction.

Overall, their findings confirm that the PC frame fundamentally alters interactions between men and women in face-to-face groups; but contrary to its negative connotation, it actually facilitates the expression of new ideas and reduces high levels of uncertainty between team members.

Business Application

These findings indicate that as a team leader, it is crucial to be aware of the importance of being sensitive to different others.  “Managers should not presume that sex-stereotypes are resolved,” says Chatman. “Our research shows that they are alive and well, and that they can impact a team's processes and outcomes, particularly with regards to generating creative ideas…”

“People need to feel that others will treat them with a reasonable level of respect and see them for who they are (rather than for whom the stereotype of their sex sees them) before they are going to risk contributing innovative ideas.” 

Leaders do not need to focus on general norms that apply to all work groups in the organization, as these findings show that political correctness did not really impact homogenous groups; instead, a group’s sex composition should be considered when encouraging linguistically and behaviourally sensitive approaches to interacting with different others.

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