No Offence Taken: Creating Inclusive Work Environments

Inclusive leaders commit to creating a work environment where all feel welcomed, relevant, and valued. More often than not, however, we approach this inclusive ideal from the wrong direction.

We look for any easy way to do this and thus, we arrive at a simple conclusion: avoid saying or doing things that may cause offence. While this approach may seem inviting, it doesn’t pay off in the long run.


Avoiding offence is a tricky balancing act – everyone is offended by different things, and it’s impossible to know what may offend one person and not another.

In an effort to avoid offending others, we find ourselves in an environment where everyone walks on eggshells and avoids sensitive conversations – the deeper, meaningful conversations that are important for fostering growth.

These sensitive conversations lay the groundwork for more inclusive dialogues, and more inclusive dialogues are the key to true inclusivity in the workplace.

To have more of these inclusive dialogues, we need to strengthen ourselves in dealing with the discomfort that comes from having a sensitive conversation.

We need to shift our focus from trying to avoid offending others (or allowing ourselves to be easily offended) to embracing offensive moments as learning opportunities and as paths to constructive dialogue.

And to do that, we must understand what offence actually is, what makes us feel offended and what we can do about it.


Understanding offence

Feeling offended is contextual, and you may feel offended by something even if it doesn’t directly harm you. Your offence may be on behalf of others and/or a reaction to a violation of social norms. There may not even be a singular individual to blame – the offender may be an institution or a public display.

Taking offence is not a rational process: we do not think we are offended, we feel offended. And because offence is a self-conscious emotion directly related to our self-esteem, it’s a tricky one to tackle.

Often, offence stems from two things:

  1. Your expectations are not met
  2. Your social standing is impacted
  1. Your expectations are not met.

Say your boss invites your colleagues to his wedding but doesn’t invite you. You feel offended, not because of the act of not being invited, but because not being invited means that you are being treated differently than everyone else. You resent – and are offended by – the fact that your expectation of being treated like everyone else isn’t being met.

Your expectations, and everyone else’s, are a result of your previous experiences. Because we all have different personalities and have led different lives, we have different expectations about how people should treat each other. This can lead to you feeling offended by something that would go totally unnoticed by me.

  1. Your social standing is impacted.

Let’s face it: humans are incredibly judgmental. We form immediate conclusions based on superficial evaluations and often forget that people are more than just their worst moments. We don’t easily listen to opposing viewpoints and are much more likely to criticise a perspective that differs from our own than take a moment to consider it.

If your perspectives are often criticised and dismissed, eventually you will start to feel personally attacked for your beliefs or standings. This judgement, especially if openly discussed and shared around the workplace, can diminish your social standing and cause you to feel offended.


Stronger self-esteem = stronger teams

Because taking offence is directly related to our sense of worth and self-esteem, we need to look at strengthening the implicit self-esteem of the individuals in our workplace – ourselves included.

This isn’t cocky, externally projected confidence (explicit self-esteem); it’s a calm, modest, and sure sense of personal value.

People in inclusive work environments feel secure at a deeper level. Beneath the surface, they feel safe and invited to say what they think. This allows people to have sharp debates and speak their minds without easily causing or taking offence and is a clear sign of an inclusive workplace.

How can we get there?

Progress does not start by looking for the flaws in others and by pointing our fingers at what we think needs to be fixed.

Progress starts by looking at ourselves.

Choose to lead

The link between self-esteem and creating inclusive work cultures is the human tendency to cause offence and feel offended.

When our first reaction is to be offended rather than to be inquisitive and open, we shut down opportunities for constructive dialogues.

Here are some things you can do to help attack this problem.

  1. Connect with your deeper feelings of self-worth and develop an invisible shield of self-esteem. Use it to protect yourself from taking offence too easily. This will help you choose more constructive responses to ‘threats’ rather than just feeling offended. In turn, this creates more opportunities for open and constructive dialogues and leads others to feel safe in those dialogues too.
  2. Don’t play the victim. Victimising yourself doesn’t allow you to take ownership of offensive situations and turn them around for the better. Stop distancing yourself from individuals or situations that offend you – the picture of the dominant offender and the fragile offended is not helpful.
  3. Don’t interpret every remark as offensive to others. Rather than using our emotional energy to take offence, it should be conserved and used for creating meaningful dialogue. Taking offence on behalf of others is a cheap way of trying to gain social points and higher moral standing (putting you in a negative light tips the scales and therefore makes me look better by comparison). While it is important to speak up against micro-aggressions, publicly broadcasting our moral superiority gets in the way of creating inclusive cultures.
  4. Choose to lead, rather than to respond. Take the more difficult, out-of-your-comfort-zone path to inclusion by discussing issues face-to-face. Approach these conversations with a mindset of curiosity and the intent to listen keenly to others and to improve your relationship. See potentially offensive situations as learning opportunities.

If we stop feeling so quickly offended, if we stop being offended on behalf of others and if we stop blaming others for doing the wrong thing, we will create space for diversity. Understanding why we feel offended and what we can do to address it is an early step to making our workplaces more inclusive.

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