I think all of us remember the old adage about rising above the insults of others. “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never harm me.” It’s a nice sentiment and a powerful reminder that the name-callers and haters in this world can only bother us if we let them.
But do we still believe this in 2021? One can argue the answer is no; that this adage is out-of-touch with standards of today, especially in the corporate environments. Today perfection seems to be the standard in many quarters and in the name of tolerance we must be unforgiving of those who have ever used the wrong words.
We hear every day about careers being derailed because of hurtful words, even those uttered in our youth. Clearly whoever wrote “Sticks and stones” never envisioned a world with social media and a digital ecosystem where no sin is forgotten. These crises hit with the speed and fury of a tornado, making it all but impossible for anyone, especially those in positions of authority, to render judgment thoughtfully. Often decisions must be made in hours and any delay risks further engaging the digital mob seeking justice.
This is not to say that we should ignore or dismiss hurtful words. Clearly there are lines in speech that should not be crossed in a professional environment and there must be consequences for those who do.
However, as I’ve written before, our working environments would be healthier, safer and more productive if the rush to judgement wasn’t always such a rush. Are we really going to hold people accountable, at the risk of their careers, for careless, even hurtful, things they said in their youth? Growing up is about trial and error, making mistakes and learning from them. In fact, one can argue that our corporate cultures are healthier when we are tolerant of those who have erred in the past. “No one respects the flame like the fool whose been badly burned,” goes the song. (That’s another Pete Townsend quote for those who follow this blog.)
No rational person, especially one who likes to write, would argue that words don’t matter. The wisdom behind the old adage is not that words don’t have the power to hurt us – they clearly do – but that no matter the words each of us has the power to choose our response. When we choose to hurl sticks and stones at our offenders, we make everyone in the culture run for cover. No one feels safe when people are throwing rocks. The more often we put down the sticks and stones in these matters the better our corporate cultures will be.