Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Stuck - With A Big Black Man

I learn a lot from my clients.  While listening to their concerns, I also learn about them, and sometimes, about myself.  A few weeks back, while interviewing a young man, the question of racism came up.  The man described that he had been subjected to racism at work, and described how a colleague had referred to him as “a big black man”.  I waited for the rest of the story.  But that was it.  That was his story. 

Twice before I had heard that exact same expression, “a big black man”.  Once, as said by a relative; the other time by a different client who was relating an issue of conflict in her workplace.  In all three circumstances, it was a middle-aged (or older) white woman who gave that depiction. 

This had me thinking.  I too felt this statement was descriptive, yet innocuous.  But was it?
I asked the young (black) man further about the situation and shared with him my confusion.  I suggested to him that this expression was intended to be descriptive, not judgmental or racist.  He shared how it felt unfair and biased.  Together we agreed, the expression was used to describe a feeling of being fearful or intimidated.  We continued talking.

It turns out that beyond the words, the context of the message had been missing.  The colleague who casually made this reference, had not explained that she was relaying the fears of another person (an elderly white woman).  Nor had she intervened in her conversation with the elderly woman, to defend the character of her black colleague.  Instead, she merely informed him, matter-of-factly, as if the fear the old woman expressed was reasonable or even justified.  This young man was subject to prejudice at work, as his colleague stood idly by.

There are several learning points here. 

First - Context.  It’s the “why” of what we’re saying.  “Why” the elderly woman (might have) said that.  “Why” the colleague wanted her co-worker to know.  This essential part of our communication is lost more and more in part because we rely on a tweet, text, or a quick email, to share information.  We need to work a lot harder to relay all the information at hand – including the “why?” Read more about the need for "Why".

Second – Teamwork.  This colleague did not demonstrate that she had her co-worker’s back.  She did not speak to his good character or gentle spirit, but instead let the prejudicial opinion sit unquestioned.  If she felt compelled to remain quiet, she could at least share that with her co-worker (and offer context).

Third – Trust.  This young man did not trust in the good intentions of his colleague.  He didn’t question why she would so openly share the information she did.  Instead, he jumped to the conclusion that she herself was racist and was lumping him into some stereotypical pile.  Ironically, doing the same thing to her, that he thought she had done to him. 

Fourth - Responsibility.  The young man did not share his frustration or anger with his colleague.  Instead he stewed about it.  But without knowing how her comment came across, how could his female colleague learn what to change? 

This is our biggest lesson. We are all responsible. For understanding the “why?” For sharing what upsets and hurts us.  For learning what we’ve done wrong and what to change.  For making the changes that matter.  Without this, we are likely to remain stuck.  Stuck in our own sheltered, often misinformed opinions of each other.  Stuck following rules (like political correctness) that don’t necessarily help, but separate us more.  Let’s be better.  Let’s make new rules.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Why do we let it go so far? How to have a “little conversation” that may improve your life.

I spent the majority of my career in corporate law. Accordingly, most of my experience (both professionally and personally) is with lawyers.  Interestingly, the majority of “big firm” lawyers that I know are desperately unhappy in their careers.

Like the US, the legal profession in Australia is highly respected and coveted, bearing a strong barrier to entry.   So why, once we’ve finally breached the walls of the bar and practiced for some time, are we often so miserable?  Note: this question relates to anyone in any career
I was also guilty of said unhappiness… in fact, after having started a career in mediation and conflict resolution consulting, I often refer to myself as a “reformed lawyer.”

This led me to ponder the reasons why I, countless other professionals (and perhaps, even you in your own career) persist with vocations that bring us little joy, and what we might do about it.  After all, we change the channel when we don’t like a TV show, we leave a partner when the relationship is no longer good for us and we move house when we feel that a neighborhood is no longer safe or desirable. So why then don’t we leave a job (or career) from which we gain little enjoyment or fulfillment?  

Of course, it is likely to be connected with financial concerns and issues including family, sense of self, stability, fear of the unknown, fear of failure. However, given that we spend more time in the office than we do at home, often seeing our colleagues more than we see our own family and friends, surely, the incentive to change jobs must weigh against that.  

Apparently not.

Instead, many of us remain disengaged.  We choose to “punch in” at work, day after day, making it a pastime to complain about our jobs, colleagues and how we are not living up to our potential (or perhaps how others, or the powers-that-be, prevent us from doing so). 

If you feel like this in your career, look for the “little conversations” or “small changes” that could bring a ray of light into what feels like an otherwise dark tunnel.

A former colleague experienced just that.  She shared that she had become increasingly disengaged in her role at work but continued to stay largely because of the pay and her hard-won reputation with colleagues and clients.  She acknowledged that her despondent attitude towards work had bled into her personal relationships as well as her energy for life.  She was starting to experience bouts of depression, weight gain and other difficulties – all stemming from her unhappiness at work. Even with this awareness, she chose not to do anything about it.

We talked about her decision to stay, and I asked her what, in an ideal world, she would love to do for work. Her eyes sparkled as she started to rapidly bounce around different ideas and thoughts on project management and changing the way in which things were done at her current organization. It seems she had never entertained the idea of finding her passion within her current job.  

This conversation became the necessary catalyst for change.  Soon after, my colleague reached out to share that she had found multiple opportunities to contribute and showcase her ideas, one of which was within her own organization! She was brimming with renewed energy.  

The key takeout is, even if we feel we can’t leave our job, we may be able to find a small (but significant) ray of light that makes our current role more palatable. 

Spend ten minutes considering what you enjoy and what makes you happy.  Examine how and where this joy could intersect with your role at work.  See if there is a “little conversation” that you could have with a work colleague, superior or HR that would allow you to incorporate a little of this happiness in your day-to-day life. Whether it is joining a new committee, attending a conference or learning a new language… any positive change (no matter how small) is movement in the right direction.  

Remember, to emphasize that this seemingly “small change” is likely to have a big impact on your professional life and outlook… potentially, making you more productive, dedicated and energized in your role.