New study exposes the double-edged sword of political correctness

New study exposes the double-edged sword of political correctness

By Cibeles Duran

New study exposes the double-edged sword of political correctness

By Cibeles Duran
Employees’ attempts to foster conflict-free work zones may lead to less harmonious interactions with their spouses at home, Miami Herbert’s Valeria Alterman and fellow researchers find.

Political correctness, defined as the self-censorship of language or behavior to avoid offending those around us, may seem rooted in the judicious mindfulness of others and has become the norm in the workplace. Employees often proactively avoid controversial topics and suppress comments that may be received as rude or insensitive by colleagues. However, a new study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology is shedding light on a potential downside to the efforts, especially as effects ripple into the dynamics of spousal relationships.

Co-author Valeria Alterman, an assistant professor of management at Miami Herbert, joined Texas A&M’s Joel Koopman, the University of Florida’s Klodiana Lanaj, Florida State University’s Young Eun Lee, and the University of Arkansas’ Cody Bradley and Adam Stoverink to analyze the effects of political correctness beyond the workplace. In a series of five studies using surveys and written responses from employees in administrative, service, clerical, and technical positions, as well as from their spouses, the researchers found that politically correct behavior at work resulted in angry or withdrawn postures with the spouse at home.

Alterman explains that we expend cognitive resources under circumstances that prompt politically correct restraint. She describes the conduct as “a two-way process,” first requiring an understanding that what we say or do can be offensive to others, and then exercising a willingness to suppress the potentially insensitive words or actions.

“The process is draining,” she says. “We found that when these employees arrived at home, they didn’t have the energy or resources to be nice anymore. They were already nice at work!”

The analysis reveals the relationship between the depletion of energy caused by politically correct behavior and the level of impact on marital life. The higher an individual’s disposition to self-censor for the sake of others, the more politically correct that they will behave, which in turn leads to a higher level of cognitive depletion. The greater the depletion, the angrier or more withdrawn that the individual acts towards the spouse.

Previous research has mostly lauded the beneficial aspects of political correctness in helping to regulate social interactions and avoid inadvertent offenses. Yet the new study indicates that being politically correct at work may not be as benign as previously thought as workers may be paying the price in their personal relationships.

“We do have to acknowledge that it is a double-edged sword.” Alterman says. “Potentially speaking, if we care about others, we suppress what we say to not hurt them, which can have positive effects, but at the same time, it depletes the person that is being politically correct. It is only fair to think of politically correct behavior at work as having benefits and costs at the same time.”

She specifies that social interactions will inevitably remain different in a professional setting, where expectations exist to foster an inclusive environment, than at home, where that pressure is lifted. But a productive atmosphere in one context should not come at the expense of the other. In this manner, the study is helping to bring the issue to the broader social conversation.

“We don’t advocate against being politically correct, but after we acknowledge that it has this downside, we can begin to look at how to mitigate the effects found,” says the co-author.

Managers should address the phenomenon since the impacts may extend to work performance and not only home life – as further research may find. Reducing the consequences of energy depletion may hence take a concerted effort by both employers and employees. Supervisors can begin by more regularly giving positive feedback to workers about their performance and behaviors.

Meanwhile, employees may take conscious steps to emotionally and mentally recharge. As Alterman emphasizes, whether by taking breaks at work, doing fitness-related activities after work, or getting a good night’s sleep, replenishing our resources may help us find more motivation for an agreeable demeanor towards our loved ones at the end of each workday. After all, our homes should be conflict-free zones, too.