While most organizations have policies and processes in place for responding to sexual harassment offenses, there are many instances of behaviors or comments that may not rise to the level of such offenses but are nevertheless uncomfortable, counterproductive and potentially part of a path toward reportable offenses.
People in all organizations are sometimes hesitant to stand up to sexist comments for many reasons, including fear of being ridiculed, not fitting in or potentially losing a client. Speaking up may also mean losing an important relationship with a colleague who may be a mentor or sponsor figure.
How do women and men speak up against questionable behavior and change sexist cultures? First and foremost, by reporting harassment and discriminatory behavior through official channels. But what about comments or actions that do not meet the definition of harassment and may come from unintended offenders, perhaps due to lack of insight?
Mary Gentile’s Giving Voice to Values (GVV) work delves into how we can tackle values issues. Her “how-to” approaches help women and men to respond to unintended or uninformed but nevertheless problematic behaviors before they rise to the level of reporting offenses. This can help nip the behaviors in the bud, improve inclusivity or culture, and support the working relationships necessary for a productive company culture. Every situation is unique, but here are five core insights to help guide one’s response to the situation.
1. Consider our history. Before the colleague made a comment that offended us: Can we recall a time when we worked well with this individual, when we felt a sense of mutual respect or at least cooperation? Remembering such instances can enable us to put the offending moment in context. Did we truly hear what we thought we heard? And even if we did, can we remember that this moment is not ALL we know of this colleague? Allow them to live in our hearts and minds as a full person, with a variety of sometimes conflicting traits. This helps us to tap into our own skills and react as empathetically and objectively as we’re able.
2. Normalize the experience. People are imperfect and sometimes insensitive, but we all have the strength to respond and work through such situations. In other words, bring the emotion down so we can access our full repertoire of communication skills.
3. Assume nothing about intent! This is a challenging one, but it is important to respond to words as if they are just that, words, and not to assume that we understand where they came from. They may reflect someone’s deeply held convictions, or they may be a fleeting expression of impatience. When we assume intention, we tap into emotions that can limit our responses. It’s not that emotions are bad; they are often an invaluable bellwether, a source of insight. But when we allow them to get the upper hand, they can lead us into hasty or ill-considered responses.
4. Appeal to shared purposes. Once we let go of our assumptions about intent, we can replace them with an appeal to shared purpose; perhaps this is a project we’re trying to complete or a sense of teamwork in our department. Rather than a focus on requiring our colleague to admit their sexism, racism, homophobia, narrow-mindedness or simple “wrongness,” we are likely to be more effective at influencing their future behaviors if we can find something positive, something shared, that we can engage them with. Once we are working on the same page toward a shared goal, it becomes easier to identify the comments or behaviors that can inhibit that progress. And that leads us to perhaps one of the most important guidelines for our behavior, which is No. 5, below …
5. Focus on behaviors, not traits. In other words, once we have agreed on a shared goal, we can explain that a certain comment or behavior can inhibit our effectiveness: “When you dismiss my ideas, it makes me wonder if you think I am incompetent, and I think you are missing the insight and information I am trying to share. Can we both agree to act as if we believe the other has something valuable to offer and see where that takes us?” The reality is that, at work (or almost anywhere in our lives), we cannot make anyone THINK or BELIEVE or FEEL anything else. But we can expect that we BEHAVE in ways that advance the success of the organization. That should be our focus.
After all, of all the shared purposes we have in common with our colleagues, who would disagree with the essentials of organizational success and the commitment to a respectful workplace? That’s common ground we can build upon.
The Giving Voice to Values curriculum is available, without charge, from Darden Business Publishing. The Yale School of Management was the founding partner, along with the Aspen Institute, which also served as the incubator for GVV. From 2009 to 2015, GVV was hosted and supported by Babson College. Darden Business Publishing is pleased to present the material in its original form.