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24 Jun

Encountering the ‘other’ at work

By David Jackson, Associate Director of HR Business Solutions, Manchester Metropolitan University.

In the lead up to the EU Referendum in the UK this week, we have heard people claiming that, despite the polls, we are heading for a landslide. Their logic is based on their experience that “I’ve not met anybody who will be voting ‘Leave’/’Remain’” (Delete as applicable). The truth is that our families, neighbourhoods and social circles are never as diverse as we think they are, and the people who inhabit those spaces are very much like us. Work remains the last place where we are forced into an organised situation with people who hold genuinely different views. What does that mean for social cohesion, personal growth and progression?

The tendency towards finding ourselves in others through our choice of friends has been magnified enormously by the rise in social media and, perhaps, the associated decline of print and other broadcast media. Rather than a set of remotely edited perspectives on the world around us, we instead self-select the voices and opinions that we want to hear. If we don’t like a view that is being expressed, rather than shout at the TV or tut at the newspaper, we can simply ‘block’ that voice. We have the power to narrow down the voices we hear until all we have is a set of views of the world that we are comfortable with and which reaffirm our own.

The workplace is different. For many, this is the only place other than a family gathering where people are forced into a situation with people they may not otherwise choose to associate with. Often these unsought relationships become intimate – not in a romantic way – but in the way that a relationship necessarily will if you spend the best part of 7 hours together each day. Where else will you see 18 year olds alongside 60 year olds to whom they are unrelated? Where else will you see people with significantly different incomes or backgrounds interacting and working together? All of this happens in the workplace and we are forced to encounter the other rather than simply self-selecting people with whom we feel comfortable.

It is this forced exposure to the other that is often at the heart of workplace disputes. I have often heard exasperated managers or HR practitioners ask why we need all these procedures, why we need mediation and formal processes. Outside of work, they argue, adults are able to manage their own relationships and find their own solutions. The reason is the inability in an organised situation to simply walk away from, leave or block those with whom you struggle.

There are benefits too though. We can learn huge amounts from this encounter with the other. If we listen, and watch, and engage with the other and open our minds we can begin to grow and become more than we were to begin with. By learning that there are different perspectives to our own, and that all those perspectives are legitimate, we begin to move on again from the simplistic choices to either ‘follow’ or ‘block’ a voice. Instead, we can learn new ways of seeing the world and, even if we find them problematic, learn about the people who hold views of the world that are very different to our own. We can meet people we have never met before. We can begin to understand why Jane has a ‘Help for Heroes’ sticker in her car, and we can begin to understand why Richard is uncomfortable with that. We can stop seeing the head scarf and begin to see Sameena.

Work fulfils many needs in society that are well documented. This role of work and the workplace as being the last significant encounter with the other is under developed, but will, I am sure, become more important as we think about the future of work being human.

4 thoughts on “Encountering the ‘other’ at work

  1. Pingback: Cyber voice: how is voice changing, in today’s technology-driven world? - Research blogger - CIPD Blogs - CIPD Community

  2. Profile photo of davidjackson

    Hi KseniaZ,

    I think that you have hit on an incredibly important point that challenges our understanding of engagement. My increasingly strong view is that engagement needs to measure not simply support for the proposed or adopted approach, but the levels to which people engage with it in a critical way. Somebody who simply smiles and says everything is fine and they are happy is not, for me, as engaged as somebody who has really connected with what is being proposed and found it difficult. Engaging with an approach should be about exploring it and, if you can find nothing there that you see a bit differently, I’m not sure how much of yourself you are bringing.

    Thanks for taking the time to comment – this has really helped me to frame my own thinking in a different way.

  3. Profile photo of KseniaZ

    This is a very thoughtful piece, and it surfaces an important challenge to organisations. For me, an additional aspect to consider is that it’s not just procedures and formal processes that employers use to manage the difference of opinion. More often than not there is also an expectation for people to adopt a particular value system, both through company’s internal values, expressed as norms of conduct (“collaborative” comes to mind as a value some would unknowingly contest), as well as externally-facing values, expressed as vision, mission etc. The same way people should learn to understand and appreciate the perspectives of their colleagues, should employers accept that not everyone may be properly “engaged” with the values of the business, but be a legitimate contributor nevertheless?

  4. Profile photo of LizzieOBrien

    I think this is a really timely blog. However UK residents voted in the recent referendum, there were passionate voices on either side. We do now have a habit of surrounding ourselves with similar people who have similar opinions to us, ending up in an echo chamber of our own ideas. I wonder if that makes it even harder to collaborate with those who think differently to us in a work environment – given we probably have very little practice in doing so outside of work! What are other people’s experiences of / thoughts around this?

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