I was listening on a podcast where one of the guests was told about an incident where a female staff member felt harmed when a male co-worker would tuck his shirt in when he got out of his chair. The act felt aggressive and she reported this to her supervisor.
I spoke to a University Prof who was provided a medical note for one of her students exempting her from presenting a project to the class because of her anxiety. She is training to become a classroom teacher.
There is an email from a parent asking me to stop the child who she claims is bullying her child. This student is repeatedly pushing her child on the playground and she demands immediate action from this bullying. Both children in question are six years old.
The idea of protecting individuals from pain, harm or potential threat has taken on a new level. We are seeing it in the workplace, universities, high schools and elementary schools. Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s new book, “The Coddling of the American Mind’, describes this new metric. He calls it safetyism, that is, when communities believe that words can be dangerous acts of aggression.
Why is this a problem? Isn’t it a value that we are calling upon all members of our community to stand up to disrespect? Without a doubt there are inequities, disrespect and Injustice that continue to require our attention. The problem is that we raise the bar around what we consider as disrespectful, painful, or inappropriate behaviour.
The most supervised area in a school is a classroom. Early bullying studies showed that teachers saw only 2% of peer-to-peer disrespect. We can increase that percentage with more teacher education and training but we will never come close to having a boss, teacher or leader manage and control disrespect through ‘supervision’. We can’t supervise unkindness, disrespect and mean behaviour.
The more successful strategy is to empower all members of the workplace, home or classroom to speak up and manage their own experience. It is more successful to train every child and create a culture and an understanding so that the Rules of Engagement are shared among all members of the classroom. If disrespect happens to me, it is my job to manage that directly.
Enforcement only helps unkindness get clever. The American Civil war made slavery illegal but it was quickly followed by the John Crow South which essentially reintroduced slavery.
In the three examples above no one is talking about empowering the individual that has been harmed.
The employee that feels threatened by a colleague who tucks his shirt in when he stands up needs to find ways to regulate and manage her discomfort because my guess is that there are plenty of uncomfortable practices and movements and words that will be said by individuals around her. She needs a hand at taking care of her own feelings.
The student who suffers from anxiety and gets a doctor’s note so that they don’t have to speak out in front of others needs support and practice at doing the very thing they are afraid of. They would need scaffolding and tons and tons of rehearsal. More practice. Not less. What is a potential teacher going to do when they are in a classroom and they are in need of managing their anxious feelings? The message should be clear. Your anxiety is not a period. It’s a comma, That means your work is in finding a way to support and practice your uncomfortable feeling in a way that will help you become a good teacher.
The two six year olds are engaging in some disrespectful behaviour — one needs to learn how to be clear and speak up on her own behalf as to what behavior she will tolerate and the other individual needs to learn to manage her own uncomfortable feelings so that she isn’t taking it out on another being. Enforcing a rule does not address the needs both children have in taking responsibility for their own feelings. Nor does it give them the necessary social emotional practice of entering into their pain and exploring the opportunity for healing that lies beneath it.
We should spend less time trying to fix the world around us so that it does not have the uncomfortable edges. Workplaces need to overtly require language and rehearsal to all members of the workplace community around communication, respect, and discomfort. We should be spending a whole lot more time practicing conflict, managing discomfort, and taking appropriate risks. If I’m tired or I’m having a bad day, it’s my job to regulate and take care of my needs. If I am upset by something a colleague has said, it my job is to go there and in a respectful way have that conversation directly with that person. If I am excluded from the lunch group, my job is to work at finding out what I can do to get myself included if that is important to me.
Moral change does not come from rules and regulations. Rules, law and codes of conduct hold the boundaries of behaviour we do not accept and provides consequences for that behaviour.
But the words, the rules and regulations do not help individuals make the internal shift to change patterns of behaviour that are disrespectful unkind or toxic. For that we need face-to-face, peer connections, as immediate to the situation as possible, repeated over and over.
The world does not owe us safe passage and a discomfort free life. The culture of slights handicaps everyone by creating rules rather than making everyone responsible for taking care of their own feelings.