A few weeks ago, we tried something new at Untapped. It came about because our reputation for accelerating diverse groups of people is steadily growing. But, like most businesses, embracing diversity is an on-going work in progress, and at the crux of it all is open conversation around the areas, which – in all honesty – often make us squirm. Because we are a remote company, it is really important to continually stay in touch with each other, and so, in the spirit of baring our own inclusivity souls, we took a long, deep breath and encouraged our community to join us in sharing (via a private online messaging channel) their experiences of when they have felt different, excluded or mistreated. We weren’t sure what to expect – would anyone want to expose their vulnerability and disclose their tales, warts and all?
Within moments of the channel going live, the floodgates opened and the outpourings poured. We had revelations of sexist behaviour in previous work roles, racism from colleagues, examples of blatant discrimination against gender, ageism at its worst and cynicism around class. Some of the stories were light-hearted and even funny, others were tender, courageous and shocking. But what did become apparent was how isolating and lonely this discrimination can be, because, for the simple reason that when people feel ashamed or embarrassed, they slip into silence.
And everyone does have a story. Some experiences can define us. Maya Angelou famously said there is no greater agony than carrying around an untold story, but it is often the shackles of shame which block us taking that first step towards exposure. It wasn’t easy revealing my own tale on the channel. I noticed there was a long, heavy breath as I wrote about my first job in my early twenties, and my boss (a top university graduate) who thought it was funny to mimic my Essex accent and make jokes about me being an Essex airhead. I’m not sure if it was inexperience or insecurity on my behalf (perhaps both) but I never pulled him up on it, and to this day I can recall the churning humiliation that manifested itself in the pit of my stomach. I wish I could meet him now!
Feeling like ‘the other’ can be devastating. Last year, a survey by Cigna, using the UCLA loneliness scale, of 20,000 Americans revealed loneliness at work was at record levels, and one in four (27%) felt as though people didn’t understand them. This isolation takes its emotional toll.
Everyone will have heard of the so-called Elephant Man, Joseph Merrick, a British man born in 1862, who went on to develop grotesque and disfiguring lumps over his body and face. Throughout his life, Merrick was ridiculed, beaten, and forced to work as a living exhibit. It wasn’t until he was admitted into the London Hospital in 1886 and a letter, published in the Times newspaper, that country’s perception of him changed. A section of the letter read: “Terrible though his appearance is, so terrible indeed that women and nervous persons fly in terror from the sight of him, and that he is debarred from seeking to earn his livelihood in an ordinary way, yet he is superior in intelligence, can read and write, is quiet, gentle, not to say even refined in his mind. He occupies his time in the hospital by making with his one available hand little cardboard models which he sends to the matron, doctor, and those who have been kind to him.” It happened that as soon as Merrick was seen as a person, complete with emotions, vulnerability and humility, the prejudice that had focused on his ‘difference’ fell away. But it took almost a lifetime of loneliness and exclusion for Merrick to benefit from this newfound acceptance.
Although not quite so notorious, this woman’s account of her exclusion may resonate. Ellen, an immigration lawyer, was 49 when she joined a legal firm 18 months ago. “Being in a male-dominated setup, I always knew I would be in the minority,” she reveals, “But I was shocked how excluded they made me feel. I was older than most of them and because I had a family at home, I didn’t constantly want to socialise after hours. As the months went by I retreated more and more into myself, until it got to the point where they barely acknowledged my presence. They pigeon-holed me as the ‘boring old lady’ – one of them even told me I wouldn’t enjoy a party he was having because he was going ‘to be playing all modern music’. It was a horrible time and my work suffered because I lost a lot of confidence. Eventually, I resigned.” The Financial Times recently reported that ageism at work for women begins at 40. A survey by the Jo Cox Commission in 2017 revealed that nine million people in the UK are affected by loneliness at work.
To retreat, like Ellen, or to suffer excruciating embarrassment, like me, is not the answer. The only way we can manage these difficult feelings is to talk about them. Yes, that takes daring. And, ideally, an empathetic recipient. But, by outing the dangerous bias that lurks in the shadows, there is a chance for honest and empowering conversations to happen.
In our experience at Untapped we have seen the strength of the shared story. Not only do our clients feel they are valued as an individual - warts and all – they are more able to inhabit their world with newly discovered insights. But what’s really incredible is that this empowerment then spreads its influence far and wide. It’s the strength of the group effect that really creates change, because when people talk to each other, share their experiences and recognise that difference is a valuable asset, they start to feel very special together.
As a company, will we continue to relay our stories? You bet. Because even though it might feel uncomfortable, even painful, it’s so good to know that you’re not alone.
Written by Jenny Tucker