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Political Correctness: Social Grease for Your Diverse Project Team

By Kimberly Wiefling

My work has taken me to Japan nearly every month for the past nine years. Globalizing Japanese companies hire people from over a dozen different countries, and I often find myself working in the same room with between twenty and fifty people from ten to fifteen different countries. Some are Muslims, many are from outside of Japan, and most of them are not native English speakers. These are incredibly diverse groups of people, and there are endless challenges involved in getting everyone to work together for the greater good. But somehow it all works! Why? Certainly NOT because people openly and honestly share their true feelings about each other. Maybe it's because of the amazing Japanese tradition of omotenashi . . . the Japanese art of selfless hospitality. In other words, smiling at people when you'd rather gut them like a fish.

Okay, maybe that's a bit cynical, but after more than a hundred business trips to Japan in the past ten years, I have to say that one of the most striking differences between Japan and the US is the incredible politeness with which people treat each other--and especially how they treat people who are different from them, including a strange character like me.

Here are a few examples from my personal experience:

  • Buy a bag of peanuts in the 7-Eleven? The store clerk smiles broadly as he hands me my change and the receipt, and thanks me as if I've just purchased a Lamborghini.
  • Leave my wallet full of cash in a taxi? The driver returns it to my hotel with a rubber band around it to ensure that none of my valuables would fall out.
  • Check into a hotel with way too much luggage to carry to my room? Another woman who is checking in at the same time offers to help me with my bags.
  • Lost on the train system? A total stranger walks me to the proper exit for my hotel.
  • Standing at the bottom of a long staircase with those same impossibly huge suitcases? A Japan Railway worker stops what he's doing and carries them to the top of the stairs for me.
  • Ask for extra lotus root with my lunch? Everyone in my party gets some on their plate. For free.

The positive impacts of politeness persist regardless of the motives behind it. I honestly don't care if they're faking it!

These and a thousand other acts of kindness have deepened my understanding of the importance of politeness as the social grease of civilized society in Japan. One of my Japanese colleagues cautioned me, "Maybe we're just pretending to be polite." But I realize that the positive impacts of politeness persist regardless of the motives behind it. I honestly don't care if they're faking it! It's friggin' awesome!

As a result of my positive experience with politeness--however feigned--in Japan, I've observed the recent unraveling of political correctness in the US with dismay. Yes, I'm the author of Scrappy Project Management®, and I've prided myself on being socially unacceptable and politically incorrect, but always in the pursuit of a worthy cause more important than social niceties, never merely to vomit my ugliest thoughts and feelings onto hapless passersby. I'm an advocate of attacking issues, not people. Being politically incorrect doesn't mean being uncivilized. Would you ever run up to an overweight person and start lecturing them about eating less and exercising more? If your grandmother gave you an ugly sweater for Christmas would you toss it back in her lap while rolling your eyes and telling her it's repulsive? How about telling the truth to your spouse when she asks you if that outfit makes her butt look fat?!! Except for the sociopaths among us, I'm sure that 90% of people would understand that these behaviors are entirely unacceptable. Far from being politically incorrect, some things that human beings say and do are just plain rude.

Some situations require blunt honesty, such as when people's lives are at stake, or in cases of ethical or legal breaches. Someone at the Deep Water Horizon oil rig should have had a knock-down drag-out fight with those responsible for skipping critical steps in that project's safety and risk management program. Someone at the Fukushima nuclear power plant should have pushed to build more robust protections against earthquake-induced tsunamis. But, most of the time in projects we are not fighting for our lives, and a heaping portion of civility can grease the skids of our work with others and increase our chances of turning a group of people into a real team that can achieve what would be impossible for any of us to do alone.

Don't get me wrong, being bossy works! And you might get away with being harsh with people who report directly to you, especially if they have a kid in college, a spouse who's unemployed, a mortgage, and are old enough to fear age discrimination in a job search. But being impolite, rude, or just plain mean will not be tolerated for long by people who have alternative ways of making a living. I highly recommend seeking alternative ways to get your team to work together besides command and control or overtly expressing your unfiltered opinions of them, their religion, their cultural heritage, or their lifestyle choices. No matter whether they are radically progressive, anti-abortion, pro-choice, gay, Muslim, or gun-toting anarchists, you will gain very little by voicing your honest views about those issues. "Political correctness" is a viable path to project success in the midst of previously unimaginable diversity.

It really doesn't matter if you are "the boss," an employee, or a stakeholder who is loosely affiliated with a project. You won't be successful in a diverse team by honestly sharing your views about such hotly debated issues. Even the president can't afford to be politically incorrect. And positional power and hierarchy mean very little in organizations that are comprised of people who are voluntarily--and often temporarily--participating from different companies, such as in joint ventures or mega-projects.

For the past ten years I've been collaborating with a community of consultants, Silicon Valley Alliances. We each have our own businesses, but come together to work on specific projects for various clients. There's no permanent hierarchy in our team, only the relative roles and responsibilities that each of us plays during a particular project. Sometimes I'm the lead, sometimes I'm the support person, and sometimes I'm the janitor cleaning up the workshop room at the end of the day. Concepts like boss and employee are non-existent. We're a very diverse group as measured by gender, culture, language, spiritual beliefs, family background, personality, and style. We work together because we choose to do so, it's mutually beneficial, and the interpersonal strife is manageable. (Yes, there is "healthy conflict" in our team.) What's made it possible for our wildly diverse team to survive and thrive? Political correctness and good old homespun politeness. I don't share my open and honest opinion of everyone and everything in our consulting collaboratory. I have learned the value of being polite. This is an acquired skillset for me, but I've found that I can be:

  • …a bit more patient with people who are different from me.
  • …a bit more kind to people who aren't fully holding up their end of the project.
  • …a bit more polite to people who are annoying me.

I don't say every nasty thing that pops into my mind. (OK, sometimes I do, and then I have to apologize afterward.) And I go out of my way to be polite. For example:

  • Ask about their families, even though sometimes I'm really not that curious about their children's mischief.
  • Bring them a bottle of tea for the bullet train ride to our workshop destination.
  • Go out for dinner together when I'm desperately craving some time alone and a good ten hours of sleep.
  • Don't tell them how frustrated I am by their obsession with perfection, or agonizingly slow decision-making process.
  • Smile and say "Interesting!" when they share some inscrutable aspect of their culture or lifestyle that I neither understand nor condone.
  • Send a note thanking them for their contributions to our project, even though they're "just doing their job."
  • Say "I'm worried about you. How are you feeling? What's going on? How can I help?" when my first instinct is to shout "WTF??!"

It's OK to Fake Being Civil

No, I'm not always sincere when I'm polite. Yes, sometimes I'm forcing myself to be kind. Probably this is what some people consider being politically correct, but I've come to understand that these sorts of behaviors are the social grease that enable wildly diverse people to co-exist and work together productively.

Has all of this in any way reduced my ability to achieve results in our projects? Quite the opposite! As I take on more responsibility for the quality of my relationships with other people, accommodating their (largely irrelevant) differences, their performance improves, and our work proceeds more smoothly. Who knew? If I continue to acquire these kinds of human skills maybe I will run for US president someday.

Let me know your thoughts.

- Kimberly

Kimberly Wiefling, founder of Wiefling Consulting and co-founder of Silicon Valley Alliances, is the author of Scrappy Project Management (published in English and Japanese), and the executive editor of the "Scrappy Guides" series. Kimberly helps managers become leaders and groups of people become true teams that can achieve what seems impossible -- and would be for any individual acting alone. "Impossible" just means we haven't figured out how to do it yet!

© Copyright 2001-2017 Wiefling Consulting. All Rights Reserved.

Not all comments are posted. Posted comments are subject to editing for clarity and length.'ve just posited the secret of being a Southern girl...catch more flies with honey than vinegar..."what goes around comes around" in a small town. Too bad we've had to rediscover what should be part of our upbringing...but you're absolutely correct...everyone likes to be treated well. Even if the recipient is too dense to appreciate your kindness, you'll feel better for being kind.

Please do not confuse "political correctness" with "politeness". That was perhaps the only point I disagreed with, as being civil and respectful of others is very important, no matter if they are team members or not.

By the way, I learned to be polite from the "Pink Panther Show", certainly not from Berkley.

What you describe is not political correctness, but rather mere civility. People should be civil to one another at all costs, even in warfare. It is morally wrong to torture our enemy, but not morally wrong to put a bullet in their forehead.

Thank you all for reading and responding . . . and doing it politely. Horay for civility!

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