Sooner or later, each of us is going to say or communicate something that is hurtful, insensitive, or just plain stupid. Over the course of a business lifetime, this will occur on more than just a few occasions. To be clear, I’m not talking about the grossly out-of-bounds acts and words that you just don’t say or do in public, at work or, for that matter, even in private. I’m referring to remarks and expressions in the gray area of impropriety that can still sting and, if unaddressed, can damage trust and create resentment. Anyone who thinks they’re immune to misspeaking or misacting is ignoring statistical realities, human nature, and the fact that we live with people who may share our work lives but don’t uniformly share our cultural and personal histories or life experiences. In light of these facts of life, it’s time to update a familiar quote: “To err is human; to forgive, not divine — it just makes good business sense.”
What causes us to say the wrong thing?
The odds against interpersonal perfection in communications are against us. Each of us probably says more than one million words a year at work. It’s impossible to imagine doing anything flawlessly that many times, let alone for several years, particularly when we often spontaneously utter so many words. Couple that with texts and emails, which we send and/or forward almost reflexively, and the odds for communicating something hurtful increase even more.
Additionally, our minds have conscious and unconscious components. Based on the studies measuring implicit bias, sooner or later our non-conscious thinking processes will get the better of us, and we’ll say something that we probably wouldn’t have, if we’d taken more time to think before speaking. Perhaps this is the result of mental processes that are not clearly understood and may be autonomic.
“But I didn’t mean anything by it.”
Finally, it’s easy to make miscues. We can say things that smack a person’s sensitivities because we had no reasonable way to know our words/comments were a problem. Recently, I wrote about a situation where a friend and colleague made a jarring comment to me. Upon reflection, I realized he didn’t mean anything derogatory and probably didn’t realize it would hit me the way it did. The reason I was offended was because I interpreted his comments based on my own experiences, not his.
Add all these elements together and there’s the certainty, not the probability, of bad communications. And bad communications can lead to harm, particularly at work where relationships are tied to our careers, opportunities, advancement, mentorship, and the glue of true collegiality — trust.
What’s the solution?
In the context of business performance and team effectiveness, it’s critical for each of us to work out these issues sooner rather than later by:
- recognizing that communications problems will occur among people of different backgrounds, often unintentionally
- building organizations where people feel free to speak up when they are offended by comments
- listening to and giving coworkers a fair chance to explain their intentions and allowing them an opportunity to apologize, if needed
- accepting apologies caused by offensive comments, or apologizing if an innocent comment or action was wrongly understood or interpreted
One last important point to remember: if you’ve been guilty of making hurtful/insensitive remarks to your colleagues, spend some time exploring the types of things that may come across the wrong way. We’ve all made innocent communication errors; the key is to learn from our missteps. And of course, apologies help move us forward only if the behaviors which generated them aren’t repeated.