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Are the ‘Thought Police’ killing workplace culture?

“The most gifted of [the Proletariat], who might possibly become a nuclei of discontent, are simply marked down by the Thought Police and eliminated.”

Since George Orwell made this and many other points in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, the terms ‘Thought Police’ and ‘Big Brother’ have become part of the vernacular.

For decades, those two simple phrases represented all that is considered bad in governance. At its core is the concept that there be suppression of ideas that deviate from the way of thinking that ‘they’ - whoever they are - believe to be correct.

Google’s project Aristotle recently conducted in-depth research into what drove their high performing teams. Their results brought back into the light a concept known as ‘Psychological Safety’. This put simply is an environment where people can contribute, speak out and be themselves without fear of retribution or persecution.

Where psychological safety is strong ‘collective IQ’ goes up, where it is lacking, ‘collective IQ’ goes down. Psychological safety plays an important role in team building and ongoing team development.

Whilst people may work to create this environment on day to day functional working matters, can people also extend such tolerance to the opinions and beliefs of their workmates on broader social issues? Outright bigotry being excepted of course.

Failure to create an inclusive environment can rapidly undermine working relationships and performance. Especially if people routinely fear retribution from managers and colleagues for holding a contrary belief or opinion on a broader social issue.

For psychological safety to truly exist in a workplace, openness to discuss ideas may need to extend beyond just the ‘work stuff’. True openness may bring the discussion of and need for civil debate on ideas and opinions that vary from ours. Even strongly held ones.

In workplaces, people with good intentions may be depriving others of this sense of ‘psychological safety’ by ‘banging their drum’ too hard on a particular social cause or belief of their own. Such ideas may or may not be shared by all of their team-mates. The more senior they are, the greater the impact that this may have on supressing authenticity in working relationships.

Orwell wrote 1984 in response to what he saw as the rise of authoritarian and totalitarian thinking. He foresaw how the control over information and constant efforts at thought control and indoctrination could result in a surveillance state. The rise of authoritarian and controlling states served as both inspiration and warning for Orwell.

Traditionally the concept of the Thought Police was a case of us against them. The people versus the state. Big Brother against the every man. But this may have changed. The thought police are now often coming from within! We must be wary of turning in on ourselves. Are we now increasingly at risk of being judged at work by our peers for each thought or idea that doesn’t conform with what is considered to be an appropriate norm? Is it no longer us against them? Is it us against us?

A quote attributed to Winston Churchill states, Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak: courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen. Our society and mythology is rife with stories of courageous souls who have stood up and fought for what they believe in. There aren’t so many stories of those who had the courage to sit and listen.

Rather than being just a time to stand up and fight for what we believe in, it may well be time in workplaces to occasionally sit down and listen to ideas and concepts other than our own. This is the only way we can hope to beat the thought police amongst us, and indeed within ourselves.

In Australia we have the right to say what we want on any subject without harming others – but we have the responsibility - a duty - to respect how others think or express themselves.

Unfortunately, in today’s society, many may feel they have lost that right at work. Have some lost the courage to give those who have opinions different from ours the opportunity to put forward their point of view? If an individual feels likely to be simply ‘written off’ by their workmates for holding any contrary views or opinion to a prevailing and accepted narrative, they may be masking behaviour at work and feeling themselves to be on the fringes.

Many feel that in recent times, Australia’s open, humorous and cheeky workplace culture has been eroded and sanitized. Of course in days gone by, there were excesses by currently accepted standards, but has the pendulum now swung too far?

In over 30 years of working with workplace team development, leadership and culture we’d have to say most workplace cultures in large organisations seem to be suffering from a creeping lack of authenticity. Contrived and complaint cultures are growing, and this stifles both innovation and psychological safety we feel. Smaller organisations often suffer less it seems, as more of a personal and family style of culture can survive, and with it often less risk of creeping ‘thought policing’ potentially?

If the perceived risk of falling foul of the thought Police at work becomes too prevalent it can easily damage working relationships, and business performance. It can also be stifling open contributions from those who may otherwise be contributing more willingly to discussions, problem solving and developing stronger working relationships.

People have a right to hold their own beliefs and opinions, but they also have a responsibility to allow those that have a different opinion to have the same right – to have their say. Unless it is injurious to others of course. Unfortunately, at the moment, some workplace advocates of personal causes may seek to shut down contrary opinions and ideas if they don’t agree with what others have to say. Even if the intent of sharing was in good faith, or purely satirical / humorous in nature. So very Orwellian.

Polarising arguments abound in the public sphere, the media and in our parliaments. This is spreading to workplaces with differences of opinion that deviate from accepted social narratives being shut down, especially when managers and leaders may make it overtly known that they hold a certain view, and clearly hold disdain for others. This can damage openness, team dynamics and morale as people seek to avoid ‘rocking the boat’.

Research into the sharing of political opinions is an interesting and thought-provoking comparison. A recent study in the US by a group called ‘More In Common’ found that many millions of US citizens routinely lied about their political and social opinions out of fear. And what do they fear? Not a 1984 style government repression, but instead they feared ridicule and harassment from their fellow citizens, which, according to the report, was often magnified by social media and sometimes lead to trouble at school or work.

The report described these people as the ‘exhausted majority’ - exhausted as they have to continually monitor their opinions in the presence of others. Seventy-five percent of the exhausted majority agreed with the statement “people I agree with politically need to be willing to listen to others and compromise.”

Are key people in our workplaces who may be very decent folks, yet holding slightly varying opinions being made to feel ‘exhausted’ by limiting their interactions and masking behaviour?

The Australian Human Rights Commission has declared that Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds.

How can we as a society on one hand fight for freedom of speech and on the other harrang and harass those whose views oppose our own? In an increasingly polarised political and social culture, there is risk of decreased self-awareness when discussing differing ideas and opinions on social matters at work. We seem incapable of passionately arguing our convictions and yet being able acknowledge that we may not be completely and absolutely correct.

In the clear light of day, we know that our cognitive biases, our education, our backgrounds, our political leanings all contribute to our ideas being in some way flawed.

In his book ‘On Liberty’, John Stuart Mill argues that “All silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility,". He observed that, while most of us will happily admit to not being infallible, we are less capable of acting as though we aren't. It is only through the testing of ideas and the scrutiny of contrary position that our own convictions can become robust and that we can hope to not become thought police ourselves.

The common phrases such as “how could anyone..." - followed by anything from "vote for or against same sex marriage" to "support or not support immigration" to "still participate or not in organised religion" is a clear indicator that no opposing view will be considered and that the “thought Police’ are in action. It is time for us to pause, think whether we may be guilty at times of being the thought police to a workmate, and to open our minds to other’s opinions and ideas to better enable psychological safety at work.

I will finish with a quote that first appeared over 110 years ago and is attributed to Voltaire. If we are to beat Big Brother and not turn into Thought Police ourselves, then this should become our mantra....

“I Disapprove of What You Say, But I Will Defend to the Death Your Right to Say It”


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