Vindictive Protectiveness

Let’s balance last week’s quant-heavy post with a post about a much softer topic: words.

Though I sometimes disagree with his views, Jonathan Haidt is one of my favorite academics. If you haven’t read The Happiness Hypothesis and The Righteous Mind, you should definitely add them to your reading queue. And if that’s too much of a time commitment, spend 20 mins watching his TED talk.

I just finished reading the Atlantic’s September cover story, that he co-authored with Greg Lukianof:

The Coddling of the American Mind

In it, they describe a cultural shift in American campuses – an attempt to shield young adults from words and ideas that make some uncomfortable, which they’ve labeled “protective vindictiveness”. It manifests itself in the form of growing accusations of “microaggressions” and requirements to issue “trigger warnings” (more on those in the article). Given that the aim of the movement is centered around emotional well-being, they use Cognitive Behavioral Therapy as a framework, to argue that it may be doing more harm than good on that front. Encouraging students to develop extra-thin skin, just before they go out into the “real world”, where they’ll encounter a plethora and words and ideas that they cannot control. It is worth reading their piece in full as I won’t be able to do it justice in summarizing it. In this short paragraph, I’ve probably already made some word choices that cased someone, somewhere to take offense…

But why am I covering a piece about campus culture in a blog about business organizational effectiveness? I’m glad you asked:

  • Today’s college culture problems are tomorrow’s business culture problems, as current students leave college and join the workforce, with this cultural indoctrination in mind.
  • Looking at the direction that typical “office sensitivity training programs” are headed, and the way that some related incidents are handled, some may argue that this culture has already started trickling into the work place.
  • Tech companies will be affected first as their demographic tends to skew young.
  • No matter on which side of the academic debate on “whether it’s the colleges’ job to prepare students for post-college life” you fall, this piece suggests that the skills/culture gap is widening. If colleges are not stepping up to address it (and some may argue, are making it worse), workplaces will have to.

With that last point in mind, Haidt and Lukianof suggest steps that can be taken to remediate the situation. Perhaps the most relevant one to the business world is teaching students (employees) how to practice Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, avoiding unhealthy emotional biases and applying more objective, critical thinking not only to the business problems they are tasked with solving, but more broadly to the way they chose to experience life.

Patty McCord, creator of the famous Netflix culture deck offers this relevant piece of advice: “97% of your employees will do the right thing. Most companies spend endless amount s of time and money writing and enforcing HR policies to deal with problems the other 3% might cause”.

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Vindictive Protectiveness

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