Cancel culture is putting dialogue in crisis

There is a crisis in dialogue at the moment, which has seeped from wider society into companies and organisations.

The corrosive formula of current social and political debate, amplified by social media, is undermining the ability of people to collaborate effectively in pursuit of the goals of their company or their team. This is not happening uniformly. 

There are incidents where people have had their jobs threatened because of their views on, for instance, gender or race. Although it is more frequent, it is not yet commonplace.

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More damagingly though it is creating an overall atmosphere in which people are walking on eggshells scared that because of what they say, or even what they think, they will be will be attacked as ‘-phobic’ or ‘-ist’.

But, as a great friend of mine, the trans campaigner Jacqui Gavin, said recently when we did a panel together and a woman from HR who was, by her own admission, in some state about ‘deadnaming’ and ‘misgendering’: “Firstly, calm down. And secondly, just ask. Be curious”. 

So, how do we de-escalate this so that managers can support their people who will inevitably have different views, backgrounds and life experience?

How do we, in other words, create true inclusion where all voices can be heard, rather than enforce what is in danger of becoming current practice which is: ‘To be inclusive you have to talk like this, think like this, behave like this... or we will exclude you.’


Four thoughts 

The value of diversity lies in the recognition and combination of difference. Innovation and higher performance come from what Dorothy Leonard-Barton, the professor of business administration at Harvard, calls “creative abrasion”. 

Managers and HR need to be able to hold the ring on difficult conversations. To achieve excellent results and inspire your team to perform well, spaces have to be safe for disagreement, not from disagreement.

Team members need to invest time and energy in understanding how they are diverse from each other, by swapping their stories to discover their difference.

Secondly, recent judgements in the law, particularly Forstater vs Center for Global Development help us to find a way through this. The judge ruled that, specifically in that case, both ‘gender theory’ belief and ‘gender critical’ belief were protected by the Equality Act.

No one who holds either belief can be harassed just for holding it, but belief in either is not a defence to harassment. Whether something is harassment or not depends on the specific circumstances. 

This is helpful because it makes clear that the law does not enable the blanket rejection of one or the other belief as unacceptable. This underpins the importance of the necessity of resolution through proper discussion.

Teams gain nothing from people standing in opposite corners of the room pointing at each other and shouting ‘bigot’. Progress comes through respectful disagreement. 

Thirdly, although what I call the big ‘clown’s pocket’ baggy categories that encompass a huge range of different kinds of people are very valuable tools of analysis when it comes to understanding group disadvantage, they do not describe the whole individual who belongs to one of those groups.

Women, people from black and brown backgrounds, lesbians and gays, trans people – do not all think the same, have the same ambitions at work nor all have the same experience of life. 

We have to both recognise overall discrimination and also the potential of individual ambition. We cannot allow gatekeepers to set up in employee resource groups who, in effect, are saying there is only one way to be female, black or brown, lesbian or gay or trans. There is no right or wrong way to be from a minority.

Lastly, we need to separate subjective experience from the decision about how we respond to it. As the #MeToo movement argued: “All women must be heard”. 

We must all honour personal experience. We must listen to hear, not to respond. Then we need to have a process trusted by the whole team or organisation to decide what to do. Organisations cannot be successfully run on allegations. 

Good solutions at work that are embraced by a wide range of your people, are reached through vibrant discussion. We need real diversity and true inclusion. 


Simon Fanshawe is an author and partner at Diversity by Design. His new book, The Power of Difference, is published on 3 December.


The full piece of the above appears in the July/August 2021 print issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered to your desk.