Generosity is Worth Fighting For
In an AIHR training program I developed with Dr. Joanna Sosnowska, we included “generosity and positivity” as one of the principles that should underlie your inclusion program. For example, we should start from the assumption that people are well-intentioned, that they want to get along with their colleagues, that they want to do good work. The principle also presumes, even if we didn’t state it so boldly, that humans are a bit goofy. We sometimes say stupid things. We sometimes are clueless about how our behaviour impacts others. We are, to put it in a word, human.
An inclusion program grounded on the principle of generosity and positivity accepts that employees are humans and forgives them for it. It puts the most positive interpretation possible on behaviour and intent.
The concept of generosity and positivity may not seem radical; however, it stands in contrast to much of the conversation about inclusion. There is an influential group of people who do not believe we should approach inclusion with positivity. They believe the organization has many bad people doing bad things and that their behaviour needs to be punished.
Starting from the middle ground
It’s useful, as a technique of inclusion, to assume those you disagree with probably have a point. In this case, it’s undeniable that there are reasons some people think of inclusion in terms of negativity. There genuinely is a lot of bad behaviour, some of it is intentional, some of it not, but even where it is unintentional it’s still bad behaviour.
So how do we choose between positivity and negativity; or is there a middle ground that embraces both?
For me, the middle ground lies in enforcing the employee code of conduct, but in a way that assumes good intent except in the most severe cases. If we choose an example of inappropriate conduct away from the world of inclusion, we can think about financial impropriety. There may be strict rules on “inducements/bribes” such that an employee cannot accept a gift, such as lunch, from a vendor. What do you do if an employee breaches the code? If it’s just lunch you assume they were a bit careless, and you explain the rules and why they are so important. If they accepted an envelope full of cash, then that’s another matter and the action you take will be quite different.
The lesson of the inducements/bribes example is that there is always some nuance. If someone causes offense, you don’t ignore it, but you go in treating it with positivity and you recognize that the solution is likely to be both one person being more careful about offending and the other person more forgiving and being less likely to take offense. There’s no black and white, just nuance flavoured with generosity.
Why the middle ground is hard to hold
If we start with the principle of generosity, then lean a little into the middle ground where we recognize that there are limits to generosity are we on safe ground? Well, I think it ought to be safe, but it’s not uncontested. Often people who feel excluded or mistreated in some way are in no mood for generosity, they want revenge. In some cases, the hunger for ‘justice’ is such that it doesn’t even matter if this individual charged is guilty of any serious offense, the person who sees themselves as a victim just wants someone punished to serve as a lesson to others.
Let’s think back to the case of a vendor buying an employee lunch in an attempt to subtly sway their judgement. If the company was wracked with bribes and corruption the CEO may be tempted to make an example of the person just because they are so fed up with this type of behaviour. I’m not suggesting that is the right thing to do, just that one can see why someone, in this case, the CEO, might be tempted to act without generosity, positivity, or nuance.
Why generosity is worth fighting for
If you adopt a policy of generosity and positivity, with the “middle-ground” recognition that this has limits, you will still have to battle against angry people seeking rough justice.
Perhaps someone with an accent gets asked “Where are you from?” one too many times and they seek to have the person who asked reprimanded. Coming from a spirit of positivity HR should presume that the person who asked has good intentions. Their question was a sign of interest or just an attempt to make conversation—that’s the starting point.
Let’s just take the opposite view. Let’s imagine we start with the assumption that comments or actions are malicious. Then we end up in an impossible world of employees seeking out things to be offended by and casting about for enemies to punish.
We need to lean towards generosity and positivity and that means not going along with people who presume harmful intent. It’s not easy to do, but that’s the road you have to follow since the alternative is disastrous.
HR likes the idea of inclusion because they see it as a nice topic where everyone will easily reach agreement. They overlook the fact that it can easily turn into a discussion of “Why I feel excluded” and from there “Why my colleagues should be punished for the fact I feel excluded.” If we don’t face up to the conflicts that can arise from inclusion, we will not be prepared to deal with them. Part of being prepared is emphasizing the principle of generosity and positivity. This won’t solve the need to deal with conflict, but it will make it less likely that the inclusion program will spin out of control.