You can’t assert your way to safety at work

February 27, 2019Dr. Leeno Karumanchery

At the end of my last blog, I said my next post would look at how people could start to build a D&I strategy that fits within their company’s climate and culture. To that end, I think the first key is focussing on what baseline understandings drive a company’s D&I vision. The largest tell tale of company’s D&I driver arises in whether organizational culture tends to frame its people as individuals (i.e. fully self-actualized and capable of reaching their potential if left to their own devices) or as intermingled parts of a larger community (i.e. socially-actualized and capable of reaching their potential when working with, and supported by others).

While many of us might feel like we are fully self-actualized masters of our own fate, reality is that “who” and “what” we are, play an awfully large role in how others perceive and treat us, how we access what we have access to, and where we are likely to drive towards. So in effect, self-actualization is commonly a privilege of…well…those with privilege. I mean, can we understand how someone in a position of power in an organization is far freer to be their best, reach their potential, speak up and speak out, than is someone in a subordinate, more vulnerable position?

Now, while I’m a giant fan of the old Emotional Intelligence maxim, “You teach people how to treat you,” for me, it’s a truism that’s laden with caveats, because it is too often used to beat up on the most vulnerable amongst us. What do we get told? It’s up to us to speak up for ourselves, otherwise we are just teaching people how to treat us. But it’s never quite as simple as “just speak your truth,” or “report it to HR,” is it? These kinds of “personal power” approaches to addressing power dynamics in the workplace belie the truth of how “isms” like racism and sexism manifest in the psychology of people and in the sociology of groups. And our collective inability/refusal to address these “real” challenges has brought us to the present stagnation-point in our D&I initiatives.

In an article published in this month’s Journal of Applied Social Psychology, researchers studying workplace sexism found that a sense of belonging was deeply connected to both mental health and job satisfaction. This was a confirmatory study. In other words, while the continued scientific validation is quite important, these are not unexpected results. Similarly, would it be surprising to find that belonging, mental health and job satisfaction are also powerfully resonant in how racism impacts the workplace? How about ableism? Heterosexism?

How much more comfortable and comforting it would be if we could just teach people how to treat us. But we are taught everyday, that attempting to educate people in positions of power comes with serious ramifications? But then again, what if we are also taught not to speak up, not to speak out and not to advocate for our needs, even while people in positions of power are being taught to aggressively speak up for theirs? What if only some of us are afforded the privilege of assertiveness.

Do the math with me. Men who speak up are assertive and clearly management material right? Women who speak up are what? Bitchy? Shrill? Aggressive? How about Black Women who speak up? Angry? How would these inconsistencies resonate and impact women in male dominated fields? The questions speak to the complex internal calculus that minoritized bodies find themselves being forced to sift through as a functionality of their everyday lives. Who would want those social labels applied to them? Can we see the deep internal drive to avoid those labels and how the need to avoid those labels might have more vulnerable people accepting behaviours that they find frustrating, painful and even violating?

What we are talking about here is the nature of competing demands. We, all of us, are constantly being pulled in multiple directions with demands being placed on our time, energy and resources (e.g. by family, career, personal life, etc.). The ability to take care of our needs is one of the most basic prerequisites for lasting psychological and physical well-being, but the everyday push-pulls we face can make it extremely difficult for us to meet those needs. The healthy benchmarks here would suggest that if we believe that we’re worthy and deserving of happiness, and that our needs matter, we will find ourselves more willing and able to stand up for them. We call this drive for self-care, this ability to respectfully take care of ourselves and our needs, Boundary Setting.

Boundary setting is a calculated activity, a complex internal algorithm through which we measure responsibilities to others against our own needs. Research suggest that when we understand what fulfills us, and recognize that our needs are just as valid, and just as worth attending to as other people’s, it allows us the freedom to make healthy choices for ourselves. But again, these are healthy benchmarks set in a context where social power dynamics aren’t involved. So what happens when we have deep social risk? Risk to collegial relationships? Risk to career aspirations? Risk to livelihood and our ability to put food on the table for our kids? And what if those risks are baked into what we are, and not what we do? When issues like race, gender, sexuality and ability are involved…things get considerably more complex and risky.

Imagine you’re the new female director at an organization where you really hope to make a mark. The education is there. The experience is there. The line of sight to the corner office is there…and then, in your first meeting, a male colleague makes an off-handed “innocent” comment about your legs, or a joke about how it’s nice to finally have a beautiful woman in the group. How do you respond if he follows up with “Just kidding.” How about if all the other guys in the room are laughing. What if it’s a little more subtle, and he just interrupts you and speaks over you throughout the meeting? What do you say then? Can you prove any malicious intent? Can you prove that gender is playing a role in this interaction? What do you do? Does this scenario offer you any kind of a win win? And can we understand that the whole time she is engaged in this emotionally charged calculus, it’s physiologically impossible for her to be fully focussed on the job at hand?

Imagine you take a new job that requires a move out of state. The opportunity is great, but relocating was a difficult decision and has taken a toll on your husband (e.g. change in career, loss of friends, etc.). You’ve never been open about your sexuality as a gay man, and don’t know how inclusive this company is. On your first day of work, you’re pleasantly surprised to find that your team is incredibly warm and welcoming, and that the culture is overtly inclusive. At lunch, in the midst of a casual “get to know you” conversation, you’re asked whether you’re married or single, and you have to immediately start doing the calculus and figure out the permutations. This is not a cognitive endeavour. It’s an emotionally driven calculation that is running approx. 100x faster than your cognitive brain. You’re quickly assessing threat and determining what approach to take. What do you say? Is there even a threat here?

In both of these scenarios, it’s clear that the minoritized person’s decisions will always be open to question and debate. There will always be a “You should have X,” or and “I could have Y” inherent in the choices. And this problem is only exacerbated by the fact that the more vulnerable person is almost always placed in a leadership role, expected to educate, or stand up, or speak out and mediate circumstances that are generally out of their locus of control.

  • Safe or Unsafe > Where do I fit?
  • Included or Excluded > Where do I fit?
  • Supported or unsupported > Where do I fit?

The challenges are compounded by the social reality that this experience doesn’t end when you walk out the doors of your workplace. Your experience of the world around you is constantly driving you to calculate the answer to these kinds questions, because your life experiences may have made even safe spaces feel like they may not be safe. Sure, we’ve had great contributions from lots of marginalized peoples throughout the world’s history. But imagine how many Einsteins, how many Swaminathans, how many Jemisons we have already lost. Imagine how many more we will lose because we haven’t figured out how to put this puzzle together. Think of the lost productivity. The lost innovation. The lost potential.

This challenge will not be resolved from the bottom up because vulnerable people can’t simply “assert their way to safety at work.” And the challenges don’t arise only in organizations with supposedly “Bad cultures.” These are human challenges, and as evidenced above, power dynamics change everything because we bring our histories with us to work. These social problems find life in systemic structures, and so it requires resolutions that are both social and systemic in nature. The real path to building sustainably inclusive environments starts with our ability to create safe cultures where people feel belonging and are availed of a both access and support to reach their potential.

In my next blog, I’ll continue to flesh out how organizational vision drives the specific strategies that D&I leads should employ for maximum effect and success in their program.

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