“Be curious, not judgmental” Walt Whitman*
When you’re hired into an organization, you join a team, begin working for a particular manager, and become part of a company culture without fully knowing in advance what you’ve signed up for. Will you like the company, the office, your manager, your colleagues, and (if you’re a manager) your team? Will the culture be a good fit for you, and will it be aligned with your values? As time continues, some of those unknowns become known, and you’ll develop an ability to influence at least some of your environment, but other changes – like a new manager or the departure of a close work friend – introduce new unknowns. All of this uncertainty is at least somewhat stressful for most people. It’s part of what makes work, well, “work.” And while you should never expect to like “everything” about your work environment, it certainly helps to like enough about it. As for the rest, the key is to practice acceptance in the workplace.
The Benefits of a Positive Workplace
Note that there will always be people whom you struggle to understand, who think differently – or maybe even REALLY differently – than you do, or whose approach to work is different from your own. It’s easy in such situations to fall into a habit of being bothered by such people, judging them, or categorizing them as “lazy,” “weird,” “difficult,” or worse.
Nonetheless, learning to accept these people for who they are and how they work can be incredibly powerful. Doing so will invariably strengthen your workplace relationships – even if you still don’t want to go out for drinks with absolutely everyone – and often will help you stay better centered at work yourself. It can contribute positively to the mental health of your colleagues, since they feel more accepted, and to your own as well.
How to Encourage Acceptance in the Workplace
We all occasionally need to be reminded to “give someone the benefit of the doubt” or to “assume positive intent.” Everyone – or almost everyone – wants to do a good job. The vast majority will go about it diligently and honestly. But we’re all different. If you’ve ever taken a personality test like Myers-Briggs, you have a sense of how people are each wired in their own unique way: the big picture thinkers vs. the fact-based pragmatists, the extroverts vs. the introverts, the planners vs. the spontaneous, the thinkers vs. the feelers.
Diversity, equity, and inclusion are getting a lot of workplace attention these days. Most companies have real work to do on these topics, work that should not be underestimated. That said, true acceptance is about creating a much more broadly defined inclusive work environment, one that’s not confined only to government-stipulated categories.
It’s important to remember that we’re all reflections not only of our gender, race, and ethnicity, but also other physical characteristics – height, weight, appearance, athleticism, and disabilities; mental and emotional characteristics like intelligence, learning style and empathy; and our life experiences – how we were raised, where we grew up, whether we grew up in relative poverty or wealth, our religious upbringing, our politics, our past successes and failures, and our interests and values and hopes and dreams and fears. Perhaps that sounds corny, but it matters.
The irony is that all of us know intuitively that we’re all different, but it’s much harder to truly understand what that means, to adapt our own thinking and behaviors accordingly, and to incorporate that into our day-to-day actions, whether at work or elsewhere. Such challenges are the root of unconscious bias, micro-aggressions, and the like.
One of life guru Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is to “seek first to understand.” While he uses this principle in the context of listening, it applies as well in the way we open our hearts and minds to understanding others. You invariably benefit from accepting people for who they are and, where appropriate, helping them to be better in a way that they want to become better. Avoid the temptation to be judgy, to gossip, to send snarky texts about someone during a meeting, or to call up your close work colleague after a meeting to replay all the “stupid” things people said. Don’t try to impose your will or belief set on your colleagues. We’ve all worked with such people. They’re tiresome and demoralizing to their colleagues. They are essentially demonstrating a form of “conscious bias.” Don’t be one of them. Such behavior just makes work more like high school, and most of us don’t want to relive our high school days, even if we yearn to be young again.
Drawing the Line
Embodying the principle of acceptance doesn’t mean you need to put up with laziness, poor performance, dishonesty, rudeness, or other forms of inappropriate workplace behavior. In those situations, it’s usually best, as a first step, to make a good faith effort to communicate your observations and feelings to the relevant individual(s). You may need to involve your manager or HR, or to find a mentor, family member, or trusted friend as a sounding board for how to handle the situation. Bear in mind that you also need to be pragmatic about office politics, and in some unfortunate situations, the best answer may be for you to find another role, either within or outside your company. Hopefully, most of you won’t face such a difficult situation.
Yes, complete acceptance is an aspiration, and, yes, work is much more fun when we genuinely like the people with whom we work. However, most of us won’t ever have the luxury of choosing all our work colleagues, and even people you think you know will surprise you now and then – positively or negatively. None of us really understands everything that’s going on in each other’s lives and minds. But you – and others around you – will all be a lot happier at work if you learn to understand and accept each other for who you all are. Make this habit, and you’ll be surprised in the many ways you are rewarded for it.
* Maybe…the jury is out on whether Walt Whitman really said or wrote this precise phrase, but it’s good advice nonetheless