This was my actual response during a meeting when someone in a position of more senior leadership said “don’t take it so personally” as I tried to defend a decision I’d taken that I was proud of, but he was not so sure about.
While I was uttering the words, I felt a strange mix of things – joy, courage and a tinge of fear…but mostly a bursting pride in my ability to quickly (and calmly) conjure the right words in the moment to defend my integrity.
Immediately after the words left my mouth, there was an audible gasp in the room followed by a brief and silent pause; from me, because I had nothing left to say, and from him, because I think that he was honestly quite #shooketh. The conversation proceeded normally after that, but I was left experiencing a mildly tingling sensation throughout my body, most probably from the adrenaline and dopamine surge triggered by my instinctual fight-or-flight response to that unexpected, highly charged and very public interaction.
After the meeting, several of my female peers cornered me – “Wow, I could have never done that. Good on you!” “I didn’t like the way you were being spoken to, and was so glad that you defended yourself, but I would never have thought to say that out loud.” [and my favorite…] “He always talks to people like that, yet you’re the first person who has ever had the guts to put him in his place in public!”
Huh? But why?! So many why’s… Why had I been the first person? Why was it an act of bravery to defend in that way? These questions lingered in my mind for several days after the incident. Sometimes I felt a bit of anger rise up in my chest because it wasn’t the first time (nor will it be the last time!) that I had been told that I was taking something personally when in fact, I was simply putting forth a strong POV backed by clear data-based rationale, in a passionate way. It also wasn’t the first time that a natural inclination or behavior of mine, was deemed brave.
The interaction conjured up vivid memories of an eerily similar incident which occurred several years prior. During a meeting in a cramped room with three other people, one of my direct reports turned to me to quietly ask a question about what was being presented – totally innocent… totally normal. Right? Not so in this case. I did not have a chance to respond to her when, without warning, the male chair of the meeting abruptly yelled, “Nikkia, why you are being so disruptive!” As you can imagine, I was completely floored… but not just because no sounds had actually escaped my lips, but because he was reared-up and angry as a result of what seemed like, a work-related, presumed infraction. There was no way that I could have been affected personally by this outburst because it had nothing to do with me really – my presence was just a catalyst. Nevertheless, an apology was most-definitely warranted because the interaction was inappropriate and because it negatively affected someone on my team who was worried that she had gotten me in trouble.
So I went to his office upon his request (which I should not have done… but now know better: always find a neutral location when trying to resolve conflict!) and he apologized. But then, just as I was about to get up to leave he explained, “you know you have a presence that can be sometimes disruptive, right?” And then I was like, “Uh huh? Okay. Goodbye.”
In both of these examples, aspects of my being (not just my behavior) were being mutated and openly challenged because of unconscious bias. And I’m sure for many of you reading this, these experiences feel familiar. If I were a man, would my passionate defense of a POV be characterised as taking things personal, or would it be perceived as me being strong and leader-like? And what about that nasty word, “disruptive?” Now I get that this dude was going through something of which I had no influence nor control, but I believed then, as I do now, that because of the package that words come in (your look, the way you carry yourself, your accent, where you come from), a message can be perceived in dramatically different ways – on one side of the spectrum, additive, and on the other side, disruptive. This is unconscious bias… but more about that a little further down.
So what do we do with all of this? How can you effectively communicate to people who are mistaking your PASSION for taking things PERSONAL, that it’s not okay?
Here are 3 things to consider based on my experiences, but as always, please feel free to share more.
- It starts with self-awareness, because it is rarely about YOU – I know it sounds cliché , but knowing yourself deeply; your strengths, weaknesses and triggers, is the starting point in facing challenges and conflicts at work. If you’re receiving constructive or negative feedback about something, you won’t be able to control the manner in which the message is delivered, but if you understand what you’re all about, you should be able to quickly suss out whether the feedback is relevant or whether it’s a veiled attack on your character.
- Understand unconscious bias and how prevalent it is – We aren’t aware of this, but all of us possess some form of unconscious bias towards certain groups of people with which we have little social contact. At work, this bias permeates everything we do, and so we must all work actively to train our minds to combat it. Some organizations are ahead of others in implementing policies and instituting training to create more diverse and inclusive working environments (which is great), however many others are not there yet. So it’s up to us as individuals to try to lead the change where we can and in our own ways. Feel free to take inspiration from my bold yet respectful retort (“Please don’t take my passion for taking things personally) or if you’re comfortable, you might even want to inquire genuinely “would you say that if I were a man?”… or you can educate yourself by hearing from advocates in the HR field who are trying to empower (love me some TED Talks)… or you can join communities on social media that are trying to bring about change.
- Defend yourself – if not in the moment, then some other time – When a comment comes flying your way that is meant to tarnish your character, there will be no mistaking it. You will feel it in your bones. It will make you immediately uncomfortable and your automatic fight-or-flight response will kick into high gear as your mind and body react to the insult. In that moment, you may be the only person feeling disgraced. You may notice that no one has batted an eyelid and the conversation continues. This is commonplace because we are far from where we need to be in many work environments with regards to diversity, inclusion and true equality. If you feel it but are not sure, you might want to check in with a trusted colleague who was there to understand what their takeaways were from the incident in question. Be prepared however. You may not always get the response you expected. Whether confirmed or not, if you’re unsettled to a point where your work is being affected, you might want to talk to your direct manager about how to proceed, or HR if you’re comfortable. Finding time (and a neutral location) to talk with the person would be my next suggested step. With time, you’ll find yourself gaining confidence at being able to deliver the feedback in the moment and in artfully smooth ways, instead of having to schedule a conversation later (something that can make the grievance feel larger and the confrontation scarier than it needs to be.)