Respect and Its Opposite

Steve Roberts color photo: winter woods and mountain with teepee frame
Certain acts of wisdom are especially noteworthy when practiced by those in positions of visible leadership in our society.  A good example comes from a client of mine, a man, a CEO, not quite 50, who recently sent to his colleagues the following memo (which I’ve edited for use here):

The past couple of weeks have been among the most painful for me in my tenure as caretaker of our culture.  I have been made aware that a significant number of women colleagues have experienced behavior from some male colleagues that the women feel is disrespectful of them. 

I am speaking of behavior of any kind (a word, a look, a touch, a behind-the-back remark) that implies, in any way whatsoever, that a colleague is anything other than a colleague.  Within our community, that unhealthy behavior has taken a variety of forms, including the blatantly inappropriate.

What slaps me in the face especially is that this harmful behavior has been part of our culture for some time (perhaps forever, given that our employee population has been predominantly male), and that I have been unaware of it…at least consciously.  The pain of accountability I feel is all the more acute when you consider that such behavior is so widespread in the world as to be almost commonplace.  If I’ve missed this, I say to myself, what else am I missing?

Let me be very clear.  I bring this up not to point fingers, but rather as a first step in responding in a positive way to something that deserves the attention of every colleague who wishes to participate in creating the future of our company.

In one of our foundational documents, “What We’re Trying to Accomplish,” the very first phrase is “Build an enterprise that has a positive impact on the lives of all who come in contact with it….”  To help us do that, we will take whatever actions are necessary to create a culture that exemplifies the healthiest possible relationships among its male and female colleagues.

Exactly how that will take shape we are determining.  What you can count on is an emphasis on education, procedures, communication and accountability. 

To deepen my own understanding of how this issue of respect for women lives in our culture, I am presently reaching out to as many colleagues as I can, women and men, for face-to-face conversations.  If I don’t contact you personally, and you wish to speak  with me, please know that I welcome the opportunity.

Meanwhile, let me give you a sense of what’s at stake. 

To thrive in our company, we must be mindful of any consideration that contributes to our individual and collective well-being.  This includes, of course, anything (beliefs, assumptions, prejudices, etc.) that impacts our relationship with colleagues.  If this is not something you can engage at least willingly, if not passionately, eventually there will not be a place for you within this community.

For the moment, please take this action: Every time you ask yourself, “What’s essential in this situation?” (which should occur countless times a day), or when responding to the question, “What am I trying to accomplish?,” at the top of your list, add in your own words such things as:

    •    Act with kindness.
    •    Understand the perception of those with whom I am sharing this experience.
    •    Love the person in front of me.
    •    Be worthy of this person’s trust.
    •    Grow a peaceful and compassionate heart.

This is where our life as colleagues begins.  Without such considerations coming first, nothing else matters. 

As painful as the events which cause this message have been, I also feel gratitude.  I’m grateful this issue has become public.  I’m grateful for the powerful reminder that our purpose as a company is to grow our ability to respond in a positive way to any eventuality.  And I am grateful we have the tools and commitment to do just that.  As ever, I am blessed to be your colleague.

I look forward to hearing from you.

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"I honor that we are killing the earth for the same reason I consider being an alcoholic a privilege: it is a doorway to the profound self-understanding required to make truly healthy choices."

The Essay: Honoring the Killing of the Earth