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Why Inclusion Means Getting Comfortable With Discomfort

Why Inclusion Means Getting Comfortable With Discomfort

You wake up with a sinking feeling. Today’s the day. After weeks of avoidance, you’re finally going to step up and do what you’ve got to do.

So what are you afraid of? Flying? Needles? Public speaking? Cocktail parties? Software updates? I confess to a low-grade but persistent fear of revolving doors. Awkward to get in and out of, they’re always, you know…moving. I don’t want to go through them, but I do, so that I can get where I’m going. But for many people, when it comes to the workplace, a pervasive anxiety that also requires tackling in order to move forward is the fear of conflict.

This unease is usually attached to conversations that want and need to be had. These are the tough ones, to be entered into with colleagues about the problems that arise between people. The kind that quickly become charged and are usually uncomfortable. And so we avoid them and hope the issues will resolve themselves.

[Related: Tired of Talking About Diversity?]

I speak often on the subject of addressing unwanted workplace behavior, and these stories of avoidance abound. In industries ranging from tech start-ups to engineering to law, I hear people depict all manner of incidents that need addressing: from a colleague’s chronic rudeness, to a boss’s tendency to bark orders, to incidents of sexual harassment.

With an increasingly diverse representation in the workforce, employees bring a wide range of life experiences, cultural norms, perspectives, and opinions. Part of the widely-vaunted rationale for diversity is that it creates the conditions for diversity of thought; a concept based on the notion that there is a richness to be mined from differences in cultures, backgrounds, experiences, and group identities.

While diversity can surely pave the way to increased innovation and creativity, it’s vital to acknowledge that is comes with the challenging potential for tension and possible friction. When we’re working with people who are very different than ourselves, we run the risk of committing micro-aggressions, of causing offense, of crossing an unseen line.

Many organizations have realized that when it comes to diversity, representation alone fails without true inclusion. This means creating a workplace where people can bring their whole selves to work, without a need to subjugate aspects of their identities. The potential of true diversity of thought can only be unleashed if diverging opinions can be expressed freely. This requires a “culture of candor,” where people can speak up and challenge behavior with transparency and empathy.

Clearly in instances of sexual harassment or bullying there is not the psychological safety needed for candor, and it’s time to seek help from someone more senior and/or HR. But in addressing what I call “low intensity harassment” (rudeness, micro-aggressions, inappropriate comments or jokes), sending a calm and clear message in the moment can both help establish that the behavior was unwanted, and potentially nip the problem in the bud. But fear often holds us back from initiating a conversation.

Most of the time, the “fear” of speaking up is overstated. Scratch the surface and you’ll find that what lies beneath the reluctance to speak up isn’t fear after all. It’s discomfort. And in the interest of real inclusion, discomfort can – and must – be reckoned with. Whether it is in calling out an inappropriate joke or flagging bias in a job posting, building an inclusive workplace means surfacing and examining bias. It can be messy. It will mean some uncomfortable conversations. 

A perceived "fear" of friction can lead us to become overly cautious, tiptoeing around a difficult issue in the hope that it will resolve itself. Philip Grosch, Partner at PwC Canada, and a sponsor of a highly successful gender equity and women’s leadership program, describes the importance of working to balance the need for respect with a tolerance for candor and even conflict:

”We have to be careful…of creating an environment that is antiseptic. When you have diversity of people, you need to be able to manage difference and conflict. In human interaction there needs to be space for conflict, and at the same time an appreciation of difference.”

So how do you speak up without heart failure?

[Related: Unintended Consequences of Unconscious Bias]

Reframe fear.

The fact that a conversation may be unpleasant does not make it dangerous. Reframing a looming conversation as uncomfortable rather than frightening makes it considerably less daunting.

Discomfort will not harm us. Discomfort is temporary, and it can be overcome. Most of us don’t like it. But it won’t hurt.

Embrace awkwardness.

Discomfort is actually a good thing; it’s a sign that we’re growing, trying something new, building our muscles of resilience.

And as we encourage ourselves to engage in these difficult conversations, we can mindfully notice that the experience has not killed us. We are becoming more comfortable with being uncomfortable.

Cut some slack.

Separate the intent of the other person’s behavior from its impact on you. Yes, your colleague’s constant encouragement that you “smile!” may come off as condescending and even sexist, while their intent may be to create an atmosphere of levity and collegiality.

Most of us are often blind to the effect our actions have on others. We have all, at some point, given offense without meaning to.

Speak up and share the impact.

Sharing the impact of someone else’s behavior can help to make someone’s blind spots visible. While this isn’t easy, it creates moments of real learning, and the opportunity for empathy.

Even when it comes to addressing low level kinds of workplace harassment, responding to the behavior and sharing the impact can be enough to disrupt and change the dynamic.

Build the muscle.

Building the skills needed for having these difficult conversations is much like strength training at the gym; the more often you do it, the stronger you’ll become.

Addressing behavior with candor and empathy will become easier, and you’ll create opportunities for strengthening – rather than distancing – professional relationships.

I know that revolving doors really aren’t dangerous, despite their small spaces and constant spinning. Often, to get somewhere, I simply have to go through one, or accept being left outside in the cold.

The momentary discomfort is worth it. And when it comes to difficult conversations, pushing through the awkwardness can help get us to a more inclusive, and ultimately more comfortable place.

[Related: What Has to Change for Women at Work]


Sarah Neville is Director and Partner of Open Line, helping people to bridge difference through the power of inclusive communication. She is an instructor at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto.

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