The slippery slope of tolerance


Too much of a good thing can become a bad thing. In the workplace, tolerance is often seen as a virtue and intolerance is seen as bad. In fact, in some cases, being seen as intolerant has become a hate crime. You don't even need to be intolerant, you just need to be seen as intolerant to be charged with a crime.

That's a very slippery slope, which I would categorize as a bad thing.

At the other end of the spectrum, being too tolerant is enabling other bad things to occur, too.

To get a perspective on this, a colleague of mine suggested that when we view tolerance as virtue, the only way to become "more virtuous" is to be more tolerant.

"But there's a huge downside to this," she says. "This pattern leads to tolerating even the most vile behaviors, all in the name of trying to be virtuous."

To back up her statement, she referred to the employees caught on videotape at one of ACORN's Baltimore offices this past September, when two people went undercover seeking ACORN's help to set up a bogus company to cover up some nasty illegal activities: Child sex trafficking, prostitution, tax evasion, and money laundering.

Anybody care to encourage some of that? I didn't think so. Yet the employees in the ACORN video were not only being tolerant, they were personally aiding in the establishment of these aberrant behaviors (such as advising that underage sex slaves be labeled "dependents" to claim child tax credits on tax forms), and I would surmise they saw themselves as being virtuous for doing so.

Where do we draw the line?
Clearly, the discussion about where to draw the line is ongoing and ever-changing, but I'm not the only one saying that a line should be drawn.

In her article "The Error of Too Much Tolerance," Joan Ryan of the San Francisco Chronicle laments that neither the United Arab Emirates nor Saudi Arabia will allow women from their countries to participate in the Olympics.

She points out that for 28 years the Olympic committee banned South Africa from participating because of their oppression of blacks, and then asks why the committee is tolerating the oppression of women.

Ryan says, "In the hierarchy of injustices, women missing out on the Olympics is low on the list. But like so many protests, an IOC ban on oppressive countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE would serve as a symbol. It would say that discrimination against women - for whatever reason - is no more acceptable than discrimination against ethnic and racial groups."

Ryan closes her article by saying "We cannot force another country to change its values and customs so they better reflect our own. But we don't have to accept them, either. Some customs and values are not worthy of our tolerance."

This coming from someone who says that for 20 years as a good San Franciscan, she swallowed her judgment when it came to tolerating the customs of other cultures and religions.

Allowing vs. Endorsing
So where does the line of tolerance affect your workplace? When is it okay to say, "You can do what you want, but we don't have to endorse or condone it?"

I would suggest that this line between "allowing" and "endorsing" is one of the key issues for companies to address. Furthermore, I submit that there's a pendulum swing from tolerance to intolerance that will get organizations into trouble if they're not careful.

Allow me to explain using a snippet from David Noebel's Understanding the Times.

"In 1925, evolutionists were bemoaning the fact that they were not given the opportunity to teach their viewpoints to American students. John Scopes's attorney argued 'For God's sake, let the children have their minds kept open - close no doors to their knowledge, shut no door from them.'"

And so, tolerance expanded our nation's scientific curriculum. But Nobel points out that the pendulum has now swung to the opposite extreme. He quotes a University of Missouri science and biology professor who says "Today the situation is completely reversed." Those who would be crying "intolerant!" in 1925 are now themselves intolerant of anything that does not align with their views.

With this in mind, I encourage workplaces to be extremely vigilant about where they draw their lines of tolerance. Too little is not good, but neither is too much.

If tolerance is a virtue and the only way to become more virtuous is to be more tolerant, then we risk the danger of the pendulum swing.

Can you see the slippery slope? When people tolerate child sex slaves, oppression of women, and intolerance of opposing views, then the pendulum has swung too far and tolerance has become a bad thing.

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About The Author

Dan Bobinski
Dan Bobinski

Dan Bobinski is a training specialist, author, and an accomplished keynote speaker. He's been providing management and leadership training to Fortune 500 companies as well as smaller, regional concerns for more than 20 years.

Older Comments

Mr. Bobinski's writings elsewhere on valuing employees rather tolerating them are worthy of thought and discussion. But I fail to see the value of this article. In particular, the examples provided are puzzling at best. In particular, how does bringing up evolution serve a discussion in management. Given that the author cited argues that 'Society will flourish in the light of truth only when the emphasis shifts back to a Christian perspective', it would not be out of the realm to suspect the author has other motives than furthering our learning on management.

Tim Sweeney

Hi Tim,

To further your understanding of management I’d recommend my book Creating Passion-Driven Teams. The name of my column is “Workplace Excellence,” and I write on all sorts of workplace issues, not only on the topic of management.

It’s unfortunate that you got distracted by the Noebel citation, but (a) it was a topic that many people are aware of, (b) it clearly illustrated my point about the pendulum swinging way too far, and (c) it was fresh in my mind because I’d just started reading Noebel’s book. Also, schools are workplaces in addition to being a collection of classrooms, and not all teachers are overjoyed that the science curriculum pendulum has swung as far as it has.

The article’s main point was to raise awareness of the simple maxim, “too much of a good thing can become a bad thing.”

As a substitute example, I’m sure you and I would agree that sexual harassment is a bad thing. The pendulum was way too far over, allowing machismo attitudes to demean women the workplace. However, the “good thing” of encouraging women to put their foot down and say “enough” has, in some cases, gone too far ' in that a man can be disciplined or terminated for sexual harassment even if a woman “feels” uncomfortable around a man. Harassment doesn’t even need to occur ' a false accusation is all it takes. This is another example of the pendulum originally swinging in the right direction, but in some workplaces going too far.

Application to the workplace in general: If we’re not careful, policies having to do with tolerance / intolerance can go from being a good thing to a bad thing.

Dan Bobinski