March 2013

The word “tolerance” has about half a dozen shades of meaning, with applications ranging from medicine (as in tolerance of a drug) to engineering (as in a specification tolerance of +/- 1%). Intriguingly, of the two that apply to human interaction, one is highly positive, while the other isn’t at all.

In the positive sense—impartiality, open-mindedness, acceptance of others’ beliefs—tolerance evokes a fundamental attribute of any healthy, harmonious community.

But then there’s the matter of tolerating behavior you don’t think is right.

Let me be very clear that this is not about errors, even serious ones. We all make mistakes sometimes, and as long as we’re willing to own up to them, they often provide the chance to learn something important.

If, on the other hand, we’re talking about negative patterns of behavior—ongoing mistreatment of others…consistent corner-cutting…or general sloppiness of execution (not to mention unethical conduct, which of course is what the Compliance Hotline is for)—that’s something else again.

In my eyes, tolerating behaviors like those is not a matter of being patient and understanding. It turns out, in fact, to be corrosive: Few things are more demoralizing to those who are contributing their utmost…than seeing others flaunt rules with impunity.

Being tolerant of difference, in other words, is a vital component of respect for other people; tolerating unworthy actions and attitudes jeopardizes everything we stand for.