A few years ago I attended a leadership seminar with some other mid-level managers.
The trainer kicked off the session by asking if we believed that the people who reported to us felt they could bring their “authentic selves” to work.
There was a pause and then one of the managers, an older woman, broke the ice.
“I hope not,” she said.
It was clearly not the right answer and she knew it. You are supposed to say yes because people should feel comfortable at the office.
But she was baiting the trainer and he took the bait.
“Why would you say that?” he asked.
She said that employees brought their authentic selves to work in the 1990s. “People would swear, yell, tell dirty jokes, throw things and smash phones,” she said. “It was bad.”
All the managers on the call nodded. It’s hard to imagine now, but that was how it was.
He nodded. It wasn’t what he expected, but he thanked her for her candor, acknowledged the issue and said said he was glad things had improved.
He then pivoted to his second question.
“How many of you have ever felt “other” at work,” he asked.
Now, you have to be pretty woke to even understand that question. But we are woke and knew he was asking whether we had ever felt uncomfortable because of gender, culture, age or sexual orientation.
The point was obviously to underscore that many employees don’t feel comfortable.
One of the managers raised their hand.
“I feel ‘other’ every minute of every hour of every day,” the person said.
This was also clearly not the right answer.
You are supposed to feel a bit uncomfortable, enough so you can relate to others and they can relate to you. But not all the time. That’s not in the playbook.
The trainer knew he couldn’t brush this one off.
There has been enormous progress in making the corporate workplace in America a more inclusive place. The existence of the training was evidence.
But obviously, there is a long way to go. And it’s unrealistic to solve thorny issues in thirty minutes.
I won’t go into the details, but we ended up having an amazing discussion about the issues this particular manager faced. It made me realise that most training sessions aren’t “authentic” at all.
You know its authentic when the answers are out of clearly out of bounds.