#ChooseToChallenge at work? Okay. But how?

Alison Best

1

March

2021

The theme of this year’s IWD next week on 8 March is #ChooseToChallenge. Many people want to challenge, feel they should challenge, know things won’t change if they don’t challenge... But often that's not the issue – the question is how do you do it?

It’s going to depend on the situation of course; who or what it is that needs challenging. Challenging the sort of systemic, baked-in, gender discrimination which hampers career advancement is a different proposition to challenging an individual micro-aggression in the moment. And there’s every point in between.

Your starting point is always The Thing: Something doesn’t feel right. Maybe you’re frustrated by a lack of career progression; feel you have to be someone you’re not at work; or you feel uncomfortable with (or offended by) a colleague’s conduct…

The Impact: The effect of The Thing varies hugely. Sometimes you might feel fleeting irritation or annoyance; sometimes the impact of The Thing ruins your morning before it dissipates; sometimes it has a long term impact on your prospects, your sense of wellbeing, your sense of psychological safety. Sometimes The Thing is so serious that you find it difficult to cope.  

The Choice: Choose to tolerate it, choose to leave, choose to challenge? You can be clear on one thing; there’s a strong chance that if you do nothing, nothing changes.  The Thing repeats or carries on.  The negative impact on you continues - perhaps worsens.  Where does that end?  Do you settle for a career in which you achieve less than your potential, or for a working environment where you feel uncomfortable, or can’t be yourself?

Choose to Challenge: How difficult this is for an individual depends a lot on your workplace and the leaders within it. There is a growing imperative for all employers to ensure challenge is accepted and normal, and that those who raise concerns are supported - even championed. 

Deciding to raise a concern instantly raises another question: With whom? Highly situation dependent – but consider your options:

  • The person doing The Thing
  • A person who might be able to help change The Thing
  • A colleague
  • A trusted leader
  • HR
  • A confidential email/helpline…

Choose an avenue that works for you. If you don’t feel able to speak directly to the person, or if you don’t think they could hear it from you without becoming angry, defensive or distraught, is there someone else you could approach who might be able to have that conversation; pass the message on?

Then there’s how you challenge. There's no magic approach that is guaranteed to work and resolve everything instantly. Often challenging is a loaded thing – charged with emotion. Everyone's different. Challenge as best you can. Recognise your own emotions, acknowledge them, they're useful data if you tune in. They’re probably telling you how important this is to you. How is this impacting you emotionally, cognitively, physically?

What can you do?

  1. Time and place. When will you have the conversation? Is it something you need to deal with here and now?  Can you arrange a time a place which optimises your approach?  Do you need to enlist support?
  2. Prepare. If you have time, prepare for the conversation. Know your objective. What would you like to be different after this conversation? What would you like the other person to think and to feel as the conversation ends?
  3. Be kind to yourself. Slow down. Breathe. Take a moment and move about.  
  4. Give them the benefit of the doubt. If you can, start from the mindset that the person doing The Thing probably doesn’t mean it. Most of the time (though of course not all) people don't intend to hurt their colleagues. It can be hard to hold yourself back from judgment and blame. But even if they were thoughtless, they probably did not set out with the explicit purpose of making you feel this way. If you can hold on to that idea, it can radically improve the probability that your conversation goes well and moves things forward.
  5. Practice. Could you practice this conversation with yourself? Or a trusted friend or colleague? Experiment with options. How will you open it? Having a few words in your mind, or jotting a few thoughts down, can help get you over the initial tension, and make sure you don't forget anything important.  
  6. Don't make it personal. Focus on the The Thing and the impact of The Thing on you. People don't change their behaviour because you tell them they are wrong, or bad, or evil... They change when they understand, both on an emotional and intellectual level, how their behaviour has impacted you. Sometimes they can't or won't.
  7.  And if someone will not listen, cannot hear you, or is unable accept the impact they are having, you may need to take it further. You have a right to be heard, seen, listened to, to feel safe in your workplace and that no unfair obstacle prevents you from thriving.

It’s not easy.  

We provide short interactive workshops to help individuals put these ideas into practice – using scenarios - so that people gain the confidence to speak up and the skill to do so well, empowering them, educating others, and improving the workplace for all.  Let me know if you’d like to find out more in the run up to IWD 2021.