People don’t know what they don’t know and that fact is just one of the reasons the subject of respect in the workplace is such an important discussion. Organizations and teams are made up of individuals, and each individual has a lived experience unlike anybody else’s life story that may influence how they interpret situations, their interactions with others and the things they choose to say and do. The part of being respectful that we sometimes forget is that there may be no visible signs or obvious reason for why somebody is as they are, and we just don’t know what we don’t know.
Consider for a moment what your colleagues and boss know about you. Think next of the things they have no idea about and would never expect of you. Imagine finally that every person you meet may have some unspoken story framing how they see and experience the world.
Respect involves recognizing that anybody you meet could need an extra measure of understanding, compassion or acceptance. They might not, but if you extend the courtesy of awareness that they may not be working from the same starting place as you, you’re likely to find that your working relationship becomes more productive as each of you comes in to the interaction prepared to offer a little more and work just a bit harder. That kind of a stance doesn’t negate what the other offers but anticipates that what we’ll bring may be different, informed by the standpoint of our experience, values and fears.
A member of a minority group that was systematically sanctioned for their difference and otherness, as justified by who their ancestors had been and grudges against enemies from long ago… she struggled to learn the common language and suffered the embarrassment of her linguistic mistakes along the way.
An immigrant who experienced the worry of having the right papers in hand, her presence validated and justified by a long approval process… she is proud of that journey and proud of the citizenship she holds.
A nomadic childhood spent moving from town to town every couple of years resulted in bullying that gave way to terrified shyness… That’s what that deep breath is about when she speaks up in a meeting and it’s the reason that so much of what she says sounds more like suggestions for consideration.
She has Lupus, Fibromyalgia and/or depression or or or... Every day she copes with pain and a myriad of symptoms, grateful for her ability to work on good days and self-loathing when she can’t make it in… She hopes nobody notices when she’s moving slowly and tries not to give in to the chronic fatigue. Invisible illnesses, whether chronic diseases, mental health challenges or some nefarious and long-lasting bug, are never a choice. Doctor appointments, pain, brain fog and frustration at one’s inability to be “normal” are balanced against delivering results in the workplace, getting things accomplished and not letting anybody down.
She is half deaf and a hearing aid won’t help her hearing so she must position herself to hear people with her good ear, finding it easiest if she’s face-to-face with them even as she isn’t conscious of reading their lips. She gets overwhelmed when there is too much going on or if she’s caught in the middle of a crowd; not being able to distinguish exactly where sounds are coming from leads to a kind of vertigo and it is exhausting.
“She” is one woman who believes all those challenges make her stronger (except when they remind her that they own her strength). She works harder than many because she fears she being found out, fears not keeping up with expectations, and fears that if she ever gives in to her weaknesses that she will let the people who count on her down… She doesn’t want to let you down.
I’m not making excuses for her or anyone. I’m not even suggesting you put up with excuses. But I do think we would all be well served by remembering we don’t always have all the facts about people. I’m asking you to consider that “different” exists even when it isn’t obvious and to respect that there may be more at work than you know.
Cindy Roche is a human resources consultant with a background in L&D and project management, specializing in organizational effectiveness and performance support strategies. She is currently teaching with the SAIT School of Business helping to shape the next generation of HR leaders.