On Being Uncomfortable At Work

On Being Uncomfortable at Work

Practising what you preach

It’s the fall of 2015 and the United States Presidential campaign season has begun. While it’s early in the race, I’m already observing several people I’m connected with who are displaying… interesting behaviour.

Some are expressing political opinions that are not in line with my own, so much so that it has at times made me question my relationship with them. Others are discussing how annoyed they are by all the political updates, and that they may need to filter their respective social media streams to block out the “noise.”

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What’s interesting to me is that many of my business colleagues are strong advocates for progressive workplaces, especially around the concept of “bringing your whole self to work.” This concept advocates that employees are happier and more productive if organisations reduce barriers to self-expression at work.

For example, there are workplaces that have policies regarding appearance, defining which types of hairstyles may be considered appropriate. This tends to impact those with hairstyles considered outside the norm, such as afros, cornrows, dreadlocks and women with short or no hair.

In our companies, how often do we proclaim to have an “open door policy” while at the same time we don’t make visitors to our space feel welcome?

Many of my colleagues would argue (and I would agree) that one’s hairstyle doesn’t have a correlation to one’s job performance. If employees were able to wear the style that makes them happy at work, this should translate to higher engagement and productivity. If you’re spending less time and energy conforming to unnecessary standards, then you can devote that time to producing results.

So my colleague’s stance on filtering posts concerns me from an organisational effectiveness standpoint.

  • In our companies, how often do we proclaim to have an “open door policy” while at the same time we don’t make visitors to our space feel welcome?
  • Do we only allow for acceptable forms of difference, meaning that which doesn’t truly challenge the way we think or conduct business?
  • How quickly do we dismiss people who are as passionate about work as we are, but perhaps just express it differently?

I ask these questions not just from a moral perspective. This is not just a case of being more tolerant, it’s becoming increasingly evident that diversity of perspectives and opinions is known to produce better business results.

For example, according to a 2012 Credit Suisse report, boards which had at least one woman member tend to outperform other organisations, particularly during economic hard times.

“…there is a clear split between relative performance over 2005 to 2007 and the post 2008 performance. In the middle of the decade when economic growth was relatively robust, there was little difference in share price performance between companies with or without women on the board. Almost all of the outperformance in the back-test has been delivered post 2008, since the macro environment deteriorated and volatility increased. In other words, stocks with greater gender diversity on their boards… tend to perform best when markets are falling, deliver higher average ROEs through the cycle, exhibit less volatility in earnings and typically have lower gearing ratios.”

And in a July 2015 article entitled Women Directors Change How Boards Work, Professor Aaron A. Dhir looked at 23 Norwegian corporate board directors, both male and female. Based on his research, he observed that :

“…many women brought to the boardroom, and to decision making, a different set of perspectives, experiences, angles and viewpoints than their male counterparts. Board members also observed that female directors are “more likely than their male counterparts to probe deeply into the issues at hand” by asking more questions, leading to more robust intra-board deliberations.”

Commit to a real conversation.

I’m not suggesting that we stop being professional at work, or condone behaviour that’s criminal. What I’m suggesting is a few things that may help you and the organisation be better at accepting diversity:

  • Listen to them first before making a judgement call

Much of my HR career has been spent as a employee relations specialist. In that capacity, I work with employees that often are angry or distrustful of me. And they also tend to be the same handful of people coming to my door, over and over again. It’s exhausting. As much as possible, I try to keep my personal opinions of them from coloring my interactions. Why? Because they may have a genuine concern or suggestion to share.

  • Listen to yourself

When faced with discomfort at work, examine what’s causing it and why. Is it truly unacceptable behaviour (from someone), or is it just a difference in perspective? And is your behaviour part of the problem? Going back to my politics example, if you filter people you don’t agree with online, is that behaviour bleeding over into your professional life? Sometimes, adjusting your behaviour is the key to better engagement with those whom we struggle to connect with.

  • Commit to a real conversation

Going back to the ‘Women Directors’ quote, success didn’t necessarily come from agreement. It came from from digging into a matter (“probe deeply”) and having rich discussions (“robust deliberations”). That takes time. While the pace of work may not make it easy, pledging time and energy to working with groups or individuals around areas of disagreement can pay off.

  • Find a connection

Going back to my observation regarding politics, I’ve some great friends and colleagues whom I have strong disagreements with. Through trial and error, we’ve managed to find common ground. And through that we can continue to support each other’s professional efforts.

Being uncomfortable at work isn’t easy.

For those that advocate for more genuine workplaces, it can be hard to practise what you preach. For professional growth, as well as for bottom line results, being able to manage it has benefits.

How do you engage with people you disagree with at work?

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Image courtesy Olu [email protected]





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