The true cost of trade-offs: Who can we afford to lose?

Camera is facing one seat of red and silver seesaw, with another one like it to the left. The ground is sawdust, with grass and trees in the background. | Photo by Mike Anderson via Pexels.

Mission driven organizations are not immune to harassment or bullying or toxic work environments. The Oxfam scandal is a recent example, as are some of the stories that have come to light about Clay Johnson. While these stories are related to the wave of people stepping forward in the wake of #MeToo and certainly a part of acting to ensure that Time’s Up — they are also a marker of something bigger.

Sexual assault and harassment are serious issues in their own right, and I do not wish to dilute any of the work to address those issues.

But we’re also not going to be able to tackle those issues without addressing environments that allow and support that type of behavior. And a huge red flag is any environment where people are allowed to bully each other without any accountability.

A comment like “You’re going to push that baby out under the conference table because that’s as much maternity leave as I’m going to give you” said to a pregnant employee — is that illegal?

Does it matter if the comment alone is illegal?

Organizations shouldn’t have to require that behavior be illegal in order to hold each other accountable for it. To default to law or policy is the opposite of leadership.

This is not to say we should simply fire or ostracize everyone who says anything offensive or makes us uncomfortable. (And also not to say there aren’t situations where firing isn’t warranted.)

To swing from one extreme to another is not progress. Nor is it doing any of us any good because it means we do not have the conversations we most need to have.

It doesn’t matter if the comment was not at all what the organization practiced or what its policies were. (And I am using this comment as an example of a behavior, irrespective of what else happened.)

What matters is what happens after someone make a comment like that. Whether they are protected due to title or privilege or talent, or whether people come first.

On shows like House or Lie to Me or any number of shows which I have admittedly enjoyed, we as a society glamorize the brilliant genius who is absolutely awful to the people around him. (While, this is not about gender, the brash, arrogant genius characters always seem to be male.) Not that those shows don’t also show the impact on people around those lead characters, but they often don’t show any true consequences either. This person’s a jerk, but they mean well, and they’re the only one who can do what they do that well.

And there’s the rub. The implicit argument is that, to serve the mission (campaign, organization, whatever), we have to make that trade-off. Talent being scarce and all. Big donors or board members being people we cannot afford to lose as an non profit organization. The mission coming ahead of everything else.

And that is the moment we undercut everything that we are working towards. That is when we decide to trade away the entire mission in order to win.

When we talk about the toll of harassment or toxic work environments, we frequently discuss the emotional toll on individuals. But there is more than an emotional cost. There is a dollar and an impact cost to time spent worrying about how to protect yourself or how to work around certain individuals or how not to incur the wrath of a well-connected boss who can make or break your career, or a funder who could withhold a game-changing gift for your organization.

It’s hard to measure, if it’s even possible. We don’t talk enough about organizations could have achieved if there has been instead been an environment of psychological safety.

Yes, that’s right. To make bold changes, we need safety. Environments in which people feel empowered to speak up and to ask questions literally save lives.

Does this mean no fun? No.

The difference between bullying someone and joking around is that when you’re joking around, the other person can say, “Hey, actually, I find that offensive,” or “I’d rather you not call me that nickname” — and it’s not the end of a relationship. It’s part of a two-way conversation. And that is the only way you can have fun.

Remember playing on a seesaw as a kid? Yes, you can try to flip someone off, but then you end up sitting on the ground by yourself.

I’ll say it again: This is not about gender. This is not even about individual men and women.

It is about being aware of inherent power dynamics (through title, senior, being a member of a dominant group) and finding ways to mitigate them.

We all do our best work when we can focus on the work and how to bring our best to the table. That means not worrying about questioning the executive director, but focusing on asking questions that will make the work better and advance the organization. That means redirecting the conversation back to your colleague who asked the question, even when the donor directs all their responses to you instead of to her. That means that when we see a situation that requires action, we speak up or take action believing that it will make a difference — and we see that it does.

That needs to be the future of work. Anything less is to trade away any other change we aspire to create.