SORRY JUST DOESN'T CUT IT ANYMORE, BUT WHAT AM I GOING TO DO ABOUT IT?
Hello, I’m Peter Field and I run with Johanna. In her last blog, Johanna introduced me as the blind person she guides running. It’s true. I would not be able to run outside if it was not for Johanna. Aside from running together, Johanna and I have become good friends.
This week while running, I told Jo a story that I have been re-playing over and over in my head. After giving it some thought, I realized that it relates to Human Resources and that’s why I want to share it with you.
First, here’s a little background. I moved to Vancouver ten months ago. I love the city, the ocean, and the weather. All things considered, Vancouver is pretty accessible for the blind or visually impaired. City busses are equipped with speakers, which give passengers an auditory warning just before each stop and another one upon arrival. Almost all of the streetlights have Audible Pedestrian Signals, which emit a sound so I know I can safely cross the street.
However, sometimes I feel like I’ve stepped into a time warp when it comes to people's attitudes about blindness and disability. I’m generalizing a bit, but from my experiences and interactions, I would say that for every person who "gets it" there are 10 to 20 who simply don’t. This was not my experience in Ontario, but this will be the subject of another blog!
Okay, here goes it!
This week, I was in a store buying T-shirts. The clerk was helping me make my selections when I heard someone stop behind me. They seemed to be impatiently waiting for something. While they were waiting, I could hear messages flying back and forth… "ping! …. ping! … ping! As the clerk was explaining something, my guide dog jumped! "Oh, sorry" said a female voice, "I stepped on your dog's tail". Well, I thought, ‘…this time sorry is not going to cut it’. I’m tired of people saying "sorry" when they step on my dogs tail because they are not paying attention. It happens on the bus. It happens in restaurants, and there is no reason why it should happen in this store when, besides the clerk, we are the only ones in it! ‘Does she truly believe that her lame sorry is going to make everything ok?’ I thought. So, I turned to her and, somewhat cynically, said; "Probably because you were on your phone."
I can imagine the look on her face. Astonishment, surprise, anger or perhaps a combination of all three! I could feel her taking a step back. She replied just as cynically, "Do you want to talk about it some more?"
“Yes, I do “I said. "My dog was simply lying on the floor here, and you stepped on his tail".
"Well," she said. "Your dog was lying there, and his tail was over here, and I already said sorry, so you don't have to be so rude!".
Conflict Management: This is where I had a choice to escalate the conflict or to manage it with some grace.
I was stuck. I didn’t know what to say. Was I rude? I was only trying to stand up for something I believed to be right. I didn’t know what else to say, so I paid for my T-shirts, left the store, and hoped I would not encounter that person ever again.
This interaction occupied my thoughts many times this week. First of all, I had reason to be upset. For me, sorry doesn’t cut it here because her sorry was not heart-felt. It was simply an attempt to absolve herself from any kind of real responsibility or accountability. She was on her phone and she was distracted. As a result, she stepped on my dog's tail. Would sorry cut it if she was walking down the street, distracted by her phone, and knocked over a small child? How about distracted drivers who cause injury because they are texting while they drive. Does "sorry" cut it in this situation? I’m getting a little pumped up here, but as a blind person I have a genuine concern about people's awareness or lack of awareness and how it impacts the world around them.
However, after taking a step back, I think the real learning is on me. My intent to create awareness was lost on this person when I made my snide remark. What I really wanted to say was, “Thank you for acknowledging that you hurt my dog. In the future, could you just be a little more aware? You wouldn't believe how many people do what you just did, and don't take any responsibility for it. So, thanks for that.”
I don't know if this woman has thought anymore about that interaction, but I’m going to approach the issue differently next time.
On a recent run, I told Jo about something a first-year sociology professor introduced me to. It’s a sociological theory called "symbolic interaction". This concept revolves around the idea that we change the world one conversation, or interaction, at a time. Looking back, I failed in my interaction with this woman in the store. In fact, I may not have done anything more than reinforce some unconscious biases she might have been carrying around about blind people. I did not change the conversation to one of empathy where I made a request of her without trying to make her feel blame or guilt. While it is true that her sorry did not cut it, I did not measure up with my response.
So, how does this apply to HR? Well, HR is about real interactions between people at work. Whether it’s a talent management conversation or performance management discussion, it all comes back to human interaction. If I’m in a performance discussion with my boss and I believe there’s a power disadvantage between us, and I don’t speak up, choosing to walk away grumbling that I have not been heard, I have missed my opportunity to create meaningful change. Whether it is employment equity, duty to accommodate, or a conflict management issue, these are all human-centred conversations, designed to get to appease all sides. Yes, it’s easier said than done, but next time - I’ll do better.