Battling Intolerance One Conversation at a Time

Talk to the wall

Consider that uncomfortable workplace moment that comes a second or two after a colleague or a client says something that feels wrong.

We’re not talking about blatantly discriminatory comments that leave you no choice but to speak up. We’re talking about comments potentially driven by an undercurrent of intolerance or bias. Something like, “Being a person of colour will likely help him get that job” or “With her looks, she’ll go far.”

We all hear comments of this nature, at least once in a while. They often come without warning, sometimes from someone you really like. This article is about how you react.

Should you respond? If so, what should you say? It’s a conundrum. Indeed, the moment in question is uncomfortable because you suddenly face a dilemma. Do you speak up and potentially spark an ugly interaction? Or do you simply let it go, which leaves you feeling shame and regret for disregarding personal beliefs or values? Neither choice is attractive. But one appears easier. Turning our backs on our own values can be painful, but it is something that we can hide or rationalize away.

Research suggests that managers and employees alike are often loath to tackle uncomfortable topics. They avoid it as much as possible, and it’s tough to blame them. It’s way more difficult to cause a scene and then pretend it never happened.

Challenging someone isn’t easy. It’s awkward and often creates a conflict situation that can damage relationships, not to mention one’s reputation. We all know the importance of getting along with people at work. Confronting a possibly discriminatory comment can seem at odds with that tenet. After all, challenging colleagues puts our ability to collaborate with them at risk. So, we often let the “little comments” go.

Perhaps there is some comfort in knowing that when we do this we are not alone. Then again, our silence is a big part of the problem.

Silence Serves Nobody

Here’s the rub, and it’s a big one—silence implies agreement. When we say nothing in response to a biased comment, it’s like we are declaring, “What you’re saying is what I think, too!” And if we repeatedly, even tacitly, tell our employees (or co-workers, bosses, clients, etc.) that intolerance is okay, we shouldn’t wonder why our diversity and inclusion programs fail to have a sufficient effect.

Simply put, when formal company programs discourage bias, but everyday interactions allow or even encourage it, bias lives on. And when we let bias go, we let it grow, so those everyday, mild-sounding comments are not inconsequential. They allow the problem to escalate.

The good news is that when we choose not to ignore them, the small everyday moments of potential intolerance are critical, and can be wonderful opportunities to directly tackle the problem of bias and discrimination in the workplace.

Let’s be clear. We are not issuing a war cry for confrontation. Picking fights will not benefit anyone. What we are calling for is engagement, which doesn’t involve shaming or blaming. The interesting thing about engagement is that you don’t even have to state that you disagree.

We are all biased in some way—it’s part of being human. Engaging with someone at work who has said something that feels wrong is therefore all about getting inside their head by asking questions that expose their perspective.

Think back to the sample comments presented above about how some people may have an advantage getting a job or promotion due to their looks or skin colour. It’s hard to know what the speaker was thinking. But you can still assume good intent, which is a great starting point, especially if you want to avoid a fight. To engage in this case, you could ask, “Do you think women/people of colour have an easier time in the workplace in every way?” Or “Have you ever asked a woman/person of colour what their experience has been like?” Or “I’ve heard other people say things like that before. Where does that idea come from?” Then listen to what the other person has to say.

Ask and listen. That’s how you start a constructive dialogue. Again, keep in mind the goal here isn’t about issuing a judgment of right or wrong or even convincing the other person to think differently. The goal is simply one of perspective-taking, which can make a difference without creating conflict, leaving reputations and relationships intact.

Engaging can have a positive impact in the following ways.

Cultivating Empathy: It can be illuminating to look closely at other thought processes. Instead of reflexively stomping on ideas that differ from our own, we can connect to the humanity of others by looking through the lenses they use to view the world.

Increased Understanding: By asking questions, we can develop a deeper understanding of where bias originates. This can help us understand where the person is coming from, but it can also help us better understand our own biases.

Fostering Speaker Insight: When asked questions, the speaker gets the opportunity to examine their own ideas. In some instances, this might be the first time they’ve explored the ideas out loud. The speaker may come to consider that their views bear further examination, especially if the conversation helps them realize that their views are different from those held by others.

Setting an Example for Bystanders: When someone speaks up upon hearing an intolerant comment, other people may notice. This sends a signal to the broader audience that bias is not supported by everyone. That can be truly buoying. It may also serve to help likeminded individuals to find each other—in effect, organically building a support network for inclusion.

“While formal training programs that address EDI issues are helpful, they rarely have the reach required to fight intolerance where it breeds—at the micro level.”

Micro Is Mighty

Today is a unique moment in time. Black Lives Matter, Me Too, and other social justice movements are strengthening a collective will to foster a higher level of tolerance. Meanwhile, the disparate view that assumes business can operate independently of the broader society in which it is embedded is falling away like scales from encumbered eyes.

With issues of equity, diversity, and inclusion top-of-mind amongst stakeholders (employees, clients, suppliers, etc.), business leaders can’t ignore what is happening. They are being challenged to deliver real change.

There are a number of structural supports that organizations can put in place to support equity in the workplace. For example, a company can hire an equity officer, build an equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) committee, write policies, build mentorship programs that support minorities, etc. These are all important things. But experience has shown that they don’t go far enough.

While formal training programs that address EDI issues are helpful, they rarely have the reach required to fight intolerance where it breeds—at the micro level.

As noted above, when managers let small signs of intolerance go unchecked, they send a signal to employees that they don’t take diversity and inclusion seriously. This feeds the growth of workplace intolerance, which regularly raises its unlovely head in a number of places, ranging from boardrooms and offices to lunchrooms and hallways.

To supplement and bolster existing diversity and inclusion initiatives, people across the organization need to be trained and encouraged to properly engage the small stuff whenever and wherever it appears. Each conversation is a potential waft of fresh air that can bring small intolerances fluttering into the light for closer inspection. For managers and supervisors, learning to be comfortable with breaking the silence at a minor level also improves their ability to handle big cases of intolerance.

Building an Educational Structure to Support EDI

Ideally, today’s businesses would be stocked with managers and employees who learned about the benefits of diversity and gained engagement skills prior to entering the workforce.

Unfortunately, most of the teaching materials in our schools are embedded in traditional ways of thinking about business. As a result, far too many of the case studies used to educate business professionals lack representation of women, minorities, LGBTQ+, etc. Too many management cases lack diversity or have built-in biases that colour what students see as “normal.” Strong leaders, for instance, are often depicted with traditional masculine traits. In the rare business case studies that feature women as protagonists, the subjects are often portrayed as more emotional and less risk-tolerant than men.

Fortunately, business schools are increasingly investing in resources that support comprehensive training around diversity and inclusion, aiming to offer the skills and mindsets that students need to successfully interact with a diverse workforce and operate effectively in our global economy. This includes the development of cases, exercises, and textbooks that provide a more comprehensive and realistic depiction of today’s business world and help prepare students to interact more effectively in the organizations of tomorrow.

To support the kind of engagement needed to tackle intolerance across an organization, we recently wrote a case called Breaking the Silence: Taboo Topics. With it, we challenge students to become instruments of change by speaking up when they hear someone say something that could be hurtful.

The case—which puts students in uncomfortable situations drawn from real-life experiences—isn’t designed to get future business professionals ready to “call people out” in a confrontational manner. Instead, the objective is to use the case method to allow students to experience bias as it exists in our workplaces today and develop the ability to “call people in” to a discussion of perspectives.

Judging from our early experience with this case, it is obvious that today’s business students want to learn engagement skills. And the feedback from executive training programs has been equally positive, meaning today’s business practitioners want this skill, as well.

One Conversation at a Time

Workplaces that are effective at micro-level engagement may get fewer complaints about bias. And when people feel psychologically safe and valued, they are more likely to share their thoughts and ideas. So, engaging micro-aggressions can also lead to higher levels of productivity, innovation, and adaptability.

As we navigate the so-called “age of disruption” during a pandemic, all of us—organizations, schools, and individuals—have a choice. We can try to hold onto old ways of interacting with each other, or we can mindfully create new ones that better fit the challenges we face.

Discrimination and intolerance are often built in the moment, so the uncomfortable moments they create are perhaps the perfect time to nip them in the bud. Let’s break the silence and make progress one conversation at a time.

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Click here to watch Ivey Publishing’s interview series with the authors behind Breaking the Silence: Taboo Topics. 

About the Author

Alison Konrad is a Professor and Corus Entertainment Chair in Women in Management at the Ivey Business School at Western University in London, Ontario. Contact: akonrad@ivey.ca.

About the Author

Kanina Blanchard is an Assistant Professor at the Ivey Business School at Western University in London, Ontario. Contact: kblanchard@ivey.ca

About the Author

Karen MacMillian is a lecturer at the Ivey Business School at Western University in London, Ontario. Contact: kmacmillan@ivey.ca.

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