Is Cancel Culture cancelling workplace culture?

According to Forbes, culture is a company’s single most powerful advantage.

Workplace culture encompasses the shared beliefs, values and behaviours that shape working environments.  It also plays a significant role in fostering creativity, collaboration and job satisfaction.  A positive working culture can invite diversity of thought, spark open dialogue and create a sense of belonging amongst colleagues.

However, is the recent rise of “cancel culture” proving to be a potential hindrance to cultivating some of these positive elements?

Akin to “tarring and feathering” in centuries past, cancel culture refers to “a desire or attempt to ostracise people or organisations with certain viewpoints – generally those that are considered un-progressive.”

Whilst cancel culture can create much needed accountability, justice and positive change, its knee-jerk judgement and punishment can also be the harbinger of a culture of fear:

Executive coach and consultant Lacey Leone McLaughlin says“Leaders can be afraid to get it wrong, with a comment taken out of context or quoted incorrectly. It can create a culture of fear, where people don’t speak up with their opinions, feedback, or ideas.”

 It’s not just leaders feeling like they’re unable to express their opinions – in a UK survey by YouGov, 40% of respondents avoided airing their socio-political views at work.  This fear can lead to a lack of transparency and hinder honest communication at both an individual and corporate level.

“When the threat of being cancelled becomes a daily preoccupation, honest conversations do not happen and real understanding cannot be achieved” suggests Psychology Today.

If cancel culture in the workplace creates an environment of anxiety, self-censorship, and division, the ripple effects are far-reaching:

Lack of dialogue and nuance: Cancel culture tends to simplify complex issues into binary categories of right or wrong, good or bad – potentially impinging on the development of well-rounded solutions and preventing deeper understanding of differing viewpoints.

Damaging Reputations and Careers: While accountability is essential, the permanent damage caused by a single mistake can be disproportionate to the offence committed, discouraging employees from taking risks, sharing innovative ideas – even staying out of public discussions.

Divisiveness and Fragmentation: A working culture that hopes to promote both unity and cooperation, can find cancel culture’s divisive nature eroding those fundamental values.

On the other hand however, cancel culture is both hugely beneficial and necessary.

In many instances, it encourages higher levels of accountability, acts as a deterrent to unethical behaviour, discrimination and harassment in the workplace.  It can also give a voice to the disenfranchised.

“Cancel culture has been incredibly effective at combating sexism, racism, or any other type of abuse or harmful wrongdoing to others. It’s held people accountable for their actions in ways that wasn’t possible in the past…Cancel culture demands social change and addresses the deep inequalities in keeping the oppressed oppressed.”says Alexandra D’amour

So, if there are arguments both for and against, how do successful organisations embody a balanced approach to cancel culture in the workplace?

Encourage Open Dialogue: Holding honest conversations can have a positive cultural impact on organisations.  Fostering an environment that values open and respectful dialogue encourages respect, empathy and tolerance in expressing options without fear of retribution.

“When people experience a high level of psychological safety, they can propose new ideas, experiment, innovate, disagree, and even challenge the status quo.” says Minette Norman in a Forbes’ article.

Promote Education and Understanding: Investing in diversity and inclusion training programmes can enhance cultural sensitivity and awareness amongst employees.  This can help to build empathy, reduce misunderstandings and cultivate an inclusive working environment.

“Cultural progress is made when people with different, and even opposing, views can meet, talk, and reach compromise,” suggests psychologist Dr Becky Spelman.

Emphasise Restorative Justice: Instead of focusing solely on punitive measures, consider implementing restorative justice practices. This approach allows employees to take responsibility for their actions, learn from their mistakes and make amends, promoting both growth and rehabilitation.

Freedom of speech or freedom to act doesn’t imply freedom from consequences,” says anti-racism educator and consultant Denise Branch. “’Consequence culture’ is needed to build safer, more inclusive, equitable and accountable workplaces.”

It’s essential for organisations to foster a workplace culture that values open communication, diversity of perspectives and respectful dialogue – whilst ensuring individuals are held accountable for their actions.

Striking this balance can help mitigate the potential negative impact of cancel culture on workplace culture – but it’s a working balance. Organisations need to remain agile, continually evaluating how they are doing and where they can do better.

Is cancel culture, cancelling your workplace culture?  Can we help you fine tune your single, most powerful advantage?

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