Pink Shirt Day: Is the office any different than the playground?

Two days ago, I came across a brutally honest and beautifully written look at the impacts of bullying. Canadian poet Shane Koyczan and a slew of talented animators came together for “To This Day.” The result is a synergy of words and images, movement and pain that create a video to remind everyone that even the most nonchalant words, the ones we often forget seconds after they escape our lips, can change the outcome of a person’s life forever.

As a parent, I’m constantly afraid that my boys will be judged on something arbitrary (and ultimately irrelevant) at a young age and suffer through years of abuse. I’m powerless to help, holding onto the hope that my wife and I can give them both the confidence and self-esteem to push on,  be better human beings and grow up without succumbing to the crippling fear of not fitting in.It’s scary to think all we can do is pray that when we tell our kids they are special (no matter what they hear from other people), they believe it.

I never had to deal with the ridicule or fear, mostly because I developed a love of sports and had enough athletic prowess to play on sports teams at a young age. As a result my social status was easily defined and I was popular. I was never tormented for my pipe cleaner arms, my crooked and stained smile or the fact I was adopted. I was never called stupid, or fat, or ugly, not because I wasn’t, but because I had the protection of the herd. I dressed the part and had the security of relationships created simply from playing on teams with the most popular people.

Fitting in without having to try, the inherited wealth in the currency of youth, let me develop confidence. I wasn’t cursed with an uncool love of books, music, art, computers – things I love wholeheartedly now, but wasn’t strong enough to display then – or any other unfair social poison. My norm was the norm, so I was allowed to walk freely, never in the path of insults or bullies.

If you talk to most of the people in my life, I’d think they’d mostly agree that I’m a nice guy that cares about people. Even back then, I was sympathetic to my friends, hoping to make people smile and laugh with quick comments and funny stories. Basically, I wanted needed to be liked and tried hard to make sure I was.  Sadly, I felt like part of being liked was to be a bully to those outside of my social circle. I used simple mathematics as a justification; if 80% of the people are laughing, it was OK.  The 20%, the one person in a group of five being insulted, was collateral damage in a schoolyard wars. Every insecurity I had/have, well, if I joked about it quickly before deflecting the spotlight to someone else’s most painful flaw, I didn’t have to worry about my issues defining me.

It took me years to realize how hurtful I was. Someone should have shut me up; I deserved that and more.  I’ve tried to change; I’m still too quick with words and insults. I still dismiss people’s ideas and contributions as pointless or wrong, especially at the office. Unfortunately, work is like family. We are randomly put together and told to get along. Of course, we won’t get along with everyone we meet. There are too many factors at play; interests, age, engagement, outlook. Anyone that’s single will tell you how hard it is to find someone that with whom you can share even a few of these things so asking a team of employees with no control of the situation to see eye to eye and become more than just colleagues, is basically impossible.

Not getting along, however,  is not an excuse to treat someone unfairly.

What example are we really setting?

Most parents sit down and tell their children to be nice to everyone. Don’t call people names. Share. Include. We get frustrated and sad when we see kids being cruel but we do the same things every day at the office.

“He’s useless. I wish he wasn’t on our team.”

“She doesn’t get it. How did she ever get hired?”

This has to stop. Now.

I know I’m guilty of these dismissals; I judge a team member’s value on how closely their career goals or measured output aligns to my own priorities. Assuming that because they won’t drop everything to answer a request or don’t believe in the same strategies I do, that they are a less valuable team member. We know little to nothing about any of the people we work with, especially with the increase in virtual teams and part-time employees. We form an opinion on deliverables and arbitrary details shared over conference call lines. When you comment on my energy level or my commitment, do you know that my dad is sick? Do I know if your daughter is being bullied or if money is tight and you are scared you can’t pay your mortgage? Do I even really know if you are happy in your role?

No. I. Don’t.

In an ideal world, we’d have the open dialog needed to get to the root cause of the problem. We’d work collaboratively to solve the problem and assess potential solutions. Sadly, we don’t have the time (or maybe, the desire) to do that for every single person. Those crucial conversations happen quarterly (or even less frequently) and the only real change is a shift to another section of a 9-box, an action that is almost impossible to remove from people’s conceptions.

As a kid, I watched how my father approached his profession. I saw how he valued his patients and viewed work ethic. He never once sat me down and said anything about working every day because that is what work is. He never said to treat people with respect, he just did it. And that’s how I learned. I saw good behaviors and repeated them and they’ve stayed with me to this day.

I constantly ask my boys to “be nice.” If Cillian uses a word like “stupid”, we stop whatever we are doing and talk about why that is such a hurtful term. Why then, do I condone people using similar terminology at work? Or even worse, why do I contribute to the dialog in an equally negative way?

At the start of this month, I made a decision to start having tough conversations with people at work, hoping to find solutions instead of just contributing to the problem. Instead of checking out or giving up on people, I wanted to try to re-engage and find middle ground. It’s important to have those tough conversations, but part of the solution is stopping the hurtful conversations that fill dead air on calls and text boxes on IM.  Standing up for team members and stopping toxic conversations is more than just preserving team health, it’s a sign of respect for the people you work with. Every time we resort to those oversimplifications, we make it harder for a team member to grow.

Is a team member “dumb” because she’s overwhelmed? Of course not, but far too often a mistake at work is no different than wearing the wrong kind of shirt on the playground. It leads to assumptions and rash judgments. We try to be role models for our kids and set a good example, but we should be setting those same examples for our fellow team members. People mimic good behavior. People want to be treated with respect. People want to feel safe to explore ideas and who they are, whether they are 11 or 61.

So this Feb. 27th, when you proudly dress your kid up in pink, remember there are people in your workplace that need your support too.

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