By Erik Van Slyke, Managing Director, www.erikvanslyke.com
For the last few months I set aside writing to do some listening, research and thinking. I wanted to better understand a trend that over the past few years, influenced in part by 9/11 and most recently by the pressures of a struggling economy, seemed to be reaching a crescendo that was overpowering more important refrains. It not only has become the tired song of US politics, it has infected corporate projects, and frankly, too many relationships at work, in our communities, in schools, and sadly, in our homes.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines intolerance as the unwillingness to accept views, beliefs or behaviors that differ from one’s own.
In American politics, we have seen a level of bipartisanship that has Washington divided into Red and Blue extremes, and as Todd Purdum, National Editor of Vanity Fair, described in his September 2010 article, “Washington , We Have a Problem,” “the partisan calumny and contempt in Washington are today all-consuming.” Around the world, we are seeing intolerance take many forms from the rise of religious fundamentalism in both the Christian and Muslim worlds to “the blatant bigotry of many mainstream political leaders, journalists and other elites” in Europe (Washington Post).
In the workplace, intolerance reveals itself in a variety of ways. It may be as blatant as a racial slur or ridicule of sexual orientation. More often, it is as seemingly innocuous as a manager silencing a naysayer, discouraging the introduction of a new idea or calling a person “a negative thinker.” It might also be demonstrated in customer-vendor relationships when battle lines are drawn, demands are made and both sides compete to determine how many pounds of flesh can be extracted before an mutually unsatisfying agreement is reached.
As stated by a VP of client management for a well-known enterprise technology vendor, “I went into the meeting thinking this client was one of our best relationships. They rated our work highly, appeared arm-in-arm with us at conferences, and were one of our frequent testimonials. I knew we were in trouble, though, when I walked into the conference room and saw their purchasing director and two attorneys. It was as if today was the day they decided to beat the crap out of someone and it was our turn. There was no give and take discussion. It was all about how they were right and we were wrong.”
Intolerance of any kind in organizations is a form of workplace violence. Plain and simple. It may not lead to physical violence per se, but it is not about connecting, partnering or collaborating. It is about dominating and eliminating that which is different.
Intolerance is an ideological fundamentalism that insists there is only one right way and that all other ways are wrong. A fundamentalist is one who says, “If you don’t think the way I think, then you are unworthy. And if you say that my way is the wrong way, then you are against me.”
This is a form of violence because ideological fundamentalism is closely followed by rhetorical fundamentalism which becomes a gateway to physical fundamentalism. The initial thought of “you don’t think like me” often is carried further in the minds of intolerants when they say, “People who don’t think like me (or us) should get in line or leave. My, gosh, they are anti-company. They don’t buy into our values or our culture.”
Then rhetorically the intolerant might start asking questions such as “What should we do with people that are anti-company?” Pretty soon we are ready for the final stage that says, “Anyone who is against the company should be fired” or “any vendor who is unwilling to see things our way should be sued.”
There is a temptation within intolerant thinking to escalate any variation from a “difference” to a “danger.” And by talking about anyone who thinks differently as wrong, inappropriate, unsuitable or anti-company, you are laying the foundation for somebody in power to do something about it.
Listen, I’ve been around technology for most of my career, so I understand the idea of binary constructs. One/Zero. Right/wrong. Black/white. Us/Them. In/Out. Red/Blue. Conservative/Liberal. Capitalist/Socialist. Yin/Yang.
It is human nature to try to make sense of an uncertain world with the certainty of binary thinking. We seek to find an answer, the one answer, to every question. And if we don’t know it, we search the web or hire a consultant and expect a presentation of THE answer. We want to skip the organization assessment, skip the contextual analysis, skip the frameworks and methodologies and go right to the answer. And we want the answer to be clear, concise and presented quickly.
Leaders often make the mistake of thinking they must be prepared to give one answer, the only answer, to every challenge that comes their way. This faulty thinking creates a problem. It makes leaders think that their answer must not only be right, it must be followed or else it is a challenge to their authority. It presents another problem because when a leader finds the “right way” it means all dissension must be shut out. Now, they might manage to have genuine sympathy for others in their wrongness, but make no mistake about it, they are wrong.
Leadership based upon this thinking means the right way is about my thinking, my approach, my team, my function, my division, my region, my company, my culture, my tribe, my dogma. Any deviation from that is substandard.
But here’s the rub. Organization effectiveness and intolerance cannot coexist.
We live in a business world that is increasingly partnered, contracted, outsourced, off-shored, virtual, international and matrixed. Our organizations and project teams are flat, without any real hierarchy and without direct reporting lines. There are multiple business models that work in a variety of contexts.
Dare I say it? There is no One Right Way. In fact, teaming, collaboration, invention, innovation and creativity require the expansiveness of multiple right ways. They also demand a new way of thinking and a new way of approaching our interactions with the differences we encounter along the way. At the very least, we must be intolerant of intolerance.