Nearly all of us feel at odds with the organizations we work for at one time or another. Many who don’t fit in with the corporate culture choose to assimilate or leave.
In everyday interactions, people face choices: to remain silent or speak up, to ignore an offensive comment or challenge it, to comply with stereotypical expectations or challenge them, to pass as an insider or stand out as an outsider. Whatever the motivation, when people remain silent—even as observers—in response to demeaning interactions, their silence reinforces existing patterns of power and exclusion. And people do remain silent—often not by conscious choice but because they feel that they have no choice. They feel that their survival in the organization requires that they not speak up.
It isn't surprising that so many people respond this way. When people feel threatened, they tend to become defensive, their creativity shuts down, and they think they have no options. In many face-to-face interactions, people do not have time to step back and consider anything beyond instinctive responses. And often instincts and fear point to silence. In short, when we do not clearly see that we have reasonable and doable options, we can feel victimized by circumstances and helpless to do anything about them.
Yet, in these moments, we may face an opportunity to break negative cycles of inaction and consciously pursue alternatives that will improve the workplace.
Martha, an employee at a company I researched for my book,Tempered Radicals, was faced with this kind of test. During a compensation meeting, a recurring bias was evident that nobody else seemed to notice. She had seen this dynamic before, but this time she felt it was so blatant and consequential that she could not let it persist.
A man and a woman who held comparable jobs were being considered for promotions. Executives sometimes found the man's aggressiveness less than endearing, but they accepted it because he was charming with clients, who loved him. The woman was equally good, equally accomplished, and equally loved by her clients, though far less aggressive. The woman noticed after a while that she wasn’t being offered the same opportunities as her male counterpart and decided to talk more about her accomplishments so that colleagues would notice.
During this particular compensation meeting, the participants not only tolerated the man's aggressiveness and self-promotion, but discussed how his behavior would make him very successful. In the same meeting, the same people castigated the woman's efforts to shed light on her own accomplishments and labeled her as self-promoting. Martha recalled how she brought the issue to the fore:
“I finally said, ‘Look, I just find it odd that he is arrogant and all you do is laugh about it and think it's fine. And she, who no one would describe as nearly as arrogant—you say she's self-promoting if she says one word on her own behalf.’ I said, ‘I don't understand. Please explain this. They both have clients loving them. Why does he get such high marks and she is not getting any recognition? She probably works harder.’”
Martha named the issue then corrected the encounter by pointing to the underlying double standards in her colleagues' assessments. She left no room for doubt: "I had to say it. No one wants to address this sort of thing, but in this case, I had to say it."
Martha was usually not this direct in her challenges, and often she chose not to say anything. But she saw this interaction as a particularly good opportunity to raise awareness among her colleagues about double standards that she herself experienced.
In this instance, the demonstration of double standards was pretty blatant. But sometimes biases are so deeply embedded in normal practice that they are not evident and it seems that you are creating the issue by raising it. In such cases, you risk being seen as a troublemaker or complainer, particularly if you are perceived as one who has been wronged or are otherwise personally implicated in the latent issue. Women who speak up about harassment, for example, are often accused of causing the problem because they provoked the behavior or simply because they have a "chip on their shoulder." In situations in which you are personally invested in an issue, it can be very effective for a third party to step in and raise the concerns as a neutral witness. Find a coworker who is sympathetic to the situation and will discuss the situation as the neutral witness.
You have the choice to step forward and take action—to be among the many individuals working toward positive change.
About the Author
Debra E. Meyerson is the author of Rocking the Boat: How to Effect Change Without Making Trouble and Tempered Radicals: How People Use Difference to Inspire Change at Work, both published by Harvard Business School Press, and coauthor of the widely circulated "Modest Manifesto for Shattering the Glass Ceiling," Harvard Business Review, Jan. 2000. She is associate professor at Stanford’s School of Education and faculty at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business. She can be reached at