A few weeks ago I wrote about a situation in which the smart, emotionally intelligent, thing to do was to keep your mouth shut. That situation was one where you were obviously right, but rubbing the other person’s nose in it would serve no purpose but to confirm your win and alienate the other person.
Recently, I was asked about a situation where the reverse is true, where the right thing to do was to speak up. This is a true story, changed a bit to protect the parties involved.
Four colleagues were having a few casual glasses of wine in a hotel room after an evening learning event. The group consisted of 3 women and 1 man. At one point in the conversation, one of the women said “all men are pigs.” The man told me, rightly so, that he felt alienated and uncomfortable about this and was seeking my thoughts on what, if anything, he should do about it. He was upset with the woman who made the comment and his opinion of the other two women in the room had dropped as a result of their lack of action.
I asked for more particulars.
It seemed that once the comment was made, the man had challenged this statement and said something like “so does that mean you think I am a pig?” The reply was something to the effect of “no, I was talking about the two men in my old office who were always making suggestive comments and touching me inappropriately any chance they could.” To which the man had said “then why would you say something implying that all men are pigs?” To his memory the reply was not very apologetic, but more of the same explanation about the men she had worked with in the past. Her demeanour was also still making him feel like she thought all men, including him, were pigs. I asked about the other two women and he told me that they basically sat there with stunned looks on their faces throughout the exchange. The conversation just moved on after that and wrapped up shortly afterwards.
A few days after the event, our man was feeling that the other two women should have been more supportive. He was still most upset with the perpetrator, but he was also upset with the two bystanders whom he considers close friends. He was put off that they had not defended him and his gender in general.
He asked me for my opinion on the two bystanders. He wanted to know if his feelings were justified and what I thought the two bystanders should have done.
A principle I went to right away on this issue was that of condonation, a principle I learned from Linton Sellen. Condonation, according to Linton, is when we seemingly approve of something by ignoring it, implying acceptance through our silence. Not saying anything is, in effect, approving the offense. In a leadership situation it is clear that the leader cannot let something offensive, immoral, unethical, dangerous or illegal slip by with no action. If she does she is approving of it.
In a peer to peer situation like this it seemed a bit trickier for me at first, but in the end, the same principle applied. If someone is crossing the line and discriminating towards another person, I have a moral duty not to condone the action through silence. Had I been one of the bystanders in that situation, what I would hope is that I would have spoken up. That I would be as tactful as possible, but basically say that I do not think this man is a pig, that he is a very good man and to suggest to the perpetrator that I think she should apologize for making it sound like she was referring to all.
Good leaders and good people in general do not sit idly by while discrimination and hate take shape around us. We speak up and refuse to accept it.