Hard to believe I know, but yes, all of us at one time or another can be offensive. Unfortunately, offending one another is just part of human nature: intentional or unintentional; for any number of reasons, in a variety of ways. Regardless of the reasons, all of us have the capacity to offend anyone at any time without even knowing it.
We should, of course, take the time and care to do our best to avoid these situations; but we should also be prepared to deal with them as they arrive. There is a direct line between how we deal with the aftermath of offending one another and business effectiveness.
As a leader, if we offend one of our team members, we must understand the impact behind all of the decisions made in the process of handling the situation. Your goal as a leader should be to dissipate the situation, but to do so in a manner so that the fix is permanent and all parties involved leave feeling respectfully heard.
Be sure to not question your accuser’s feelings. You may question their reasoning, but their emotions are their own.
My suggestion is to always choose empathy. You very well may not have meant to hurt anyone. However, if you take responsibility for leaving someone feeling ill-at-ease and you wish to do anything you can to mend the situation, it displays that you clearly care for the mental health of your team. Additionally, you show that you honour their word and that you wish to be held accountable for your actions.
When we know we have done everything with positive intentions and someone still steps forward as being offended by our words or actions, instinct might pull us to become defensive. When we are told we are being offensive, it may seem that our honour is being questioned. If we become overly defensive, however, it could open the gates for more possibilities to offend those around us. Identifying our own personal defensiveness can be key to dismantling conflict, before it mutates into an even greater problem.
Here are three common yet negative examples of responses often given to employees who speak out when they feel offended by their leader:
No one else has said anything.
I have sadly heard this time and time again from employers handling employee grievance issues. That this one employee was the only person that spoke up, so they feel it shouldn’t really account for much. By doing this you are isolating your employee, who by feeling offended has already felt isolated by you as a leader. And there is no dictionary that would define ‘offensive’ with the caveat “only if more than one person says so.” One of the many things that diversity has taught us is that we all experience the same things in many different ways. Certain occurrences mean more to some than others. By insinuating that the offensive situation is just in the one employee’s mind, the employer may cause psychological damage and could create a paranoid work environment for an employee who potentially didn’t feel that way to begin with.
I’m sorry that you feel offended.
You might as well finish that sentence up with “but I still don’t think I did anything wrong.”
By saying that you are sorry that the person feels offended does not take responsibility for your words or actions. It only offers the employee a sense of pity, and suggests that you believe their negative feelings are a personal problem. Even though you have uttered the word “sorry”, this does not constitute an apology for offending the other person.
Other people complimented me.
That may be, but one woman’s trash is another man’s treasure, and vice versa. You have to honour the person telling you that what you have said has offended them, just as much as you are willing to readily honour those who complimented you. Reacting this way comes across as if you are operating with blinders that deflect all negative perspectives, even if they have validity.
Our teams are made up of individuals. We must treat them as such and nothing less. Yes, we are in business to make money. We need people, both as team members and consumers in order to make that happen. Money is certainly a numbers game, and the number of people we engage with most definitely plays into the amount of money we make.
But at the end of the day, the individuals that work for and with us on a daily basis are not numbers; they are people. They are dignified human beings who signed onto your leadership journey in order to help sustain their livelihood. That decision deserves to be treated with nothing but respect and care by you as a leader at every turn.
How would I recommend responding when an employee tells you that you have offended them?:
“I’m very sorry that I or anything I have said has offended you. What can I do to make the situation better for you?”
“Few people can see genius in someone who has offended them.” -Robertson Davies