Thursday, March 22, 2007

Insensitivity and Hyper-Sensitivity

An entire consulting specialty has arisen around the subject of insensitivity and, although many of us cringe at the behavior of diversity zealots, the damage that cruel or bigoted comments can do to a team or workplace cannot simply be dismissed.

There is, however, a flip-side to that issue: the hyper-sensitive employees who find offense in mild remarks and the managers who cave in to their demands.

The first type is reminiscent of the paranoid Woody Allen character who interpreted a colleague's question, "D'you eat?" as "Jew eat?" Every intonation is explored and evaluated for possible bad intent and some of the stretches made to find offense are extraordinary. I've heard disabled rights advocates disparage people who use the term "handicapped" on the grounds that the term is derived from an expression, "cap in hand," that was once used in England for beggars following the Boer War. Assuming the word's history is correct, it is also irrelevant. Most people who use "handicapped" are not thinking of the Boer War or beggars nor do they intend to offend. The loud denunciation of the term is, I suspect, more designed to proclaim the innocence and moral superiority of the protester than establish the guilt of the alleged offender.

The managers who cave in to these folks are also into the display of innocence and moral superiority. Rather than seriously considering if there is any reasonable basis for intentional offense, they rush to discipline and condemn. This is their means of demonstrating that they personally do not condone anything that might offend the protesting party or - and this fear is often behind such appeasement - any advocacy groups that might rally behind the hyper-sensitive.

Organizations that reward obnoxious behavior will get a lot of it. Those that reward hyper-sensitive behavior can plan receiving on plenty of complaints. In either case, trust has been damaged and the concept of sensitivity has been tarnished. The very virtues that are supposedly protected are profaned.

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