I posted before about the amazing leadership panel at Stanford: 6 panelists, all articulate, and each with a specific point of view to share. The combination led to great content, and I took away several good ideas. There was one moment though, that I’ve returned to several times over the last few months. It wasn’t part of the agenda, but I saw it as a significant leadership moment.
The discussion had turned to the American political process, and panelists were being asked their thoughts on whether a leader’s private life should be considered in the election process. In course of the conversation, someone referred to the common phrase “the personal is political”. At this point Kavita Ramdas interrupted. She called attention to that phrase, and said (paraphrasing here) “This phrase has a very specific meaning. It refers to women using the political process as a way to change the rules, and gain control over their rights. As a feminist, I can’t let you use this slogan that way.”
“As a feminist, I can’t let you use the slogan that way.” How often have you heard someone stand up and interrupt a conversation and make a correction based on their beliefs? Especially in the middle of a large group? And to say this not as a request, but as a statement of fact. How would that play in a business setting? “As an HR person, I can’t let you speak about an employee that way.” Or “As a manager, I can’t let you use that language in a meeting. It’s not appropriate.” Or “As a representative of Company X, I can’t allow you to behave this way when you work with my team.” I can count the number of times that’s happened in my work life on one hand.
Why don’t we say something? Is it because the person speaking is a customer, or a senior person, or a key player? Or do we think it’s better to address a behavioral issue behind the scenes rather than in a group setting? Is it fear of confrontation?
It’s hard to be the one who stands-up. So instead we grind our teeth as people swear in the office. Or we put up with the condescending comments in email or in meetings. Or we tolerate the off-color jokes in the hallway… and maybe we turn a blind eye on content that could be seen as harassment. And as a result, we end up with high turnover, or a harassment suit, and wonder how we got there.
Let’s make a pact for this year. Let’s agree to stand up. To call attention to the cases where there are behavior issues, or bad language. Let’s recognize that we have multiple cultures, values, norms and expectations in the workplace, and a flip comment could have significant ramifications. Let’s be open to feedback coming from others in the organization, and take it as an opportunity for improvement. And most importantly, let’s realize that this is part of a learning process. Mistakes will be made, but they are not intentional – and giving actionable, timely feedback is the best way to help someone improve.