The complexity of tolerance in the workplace

Karen Natzel, BridgeTower Media Newswires

Recently I was confronted with the duality of tolerance; and I've recognized that both interpretations can be equally powerful in fostering a culture of accountability, camaraderie and respect.

Interpretation no. 1: To allow or permit; to refrain from interfering with or prohibiting.

What one allows to happen impacts the levels of trust that exist, how much credibility one has, and what kind of results one gets. Consider how a team's performance is being managed. There is probably a mix of things being tolerated and those not.

A company may have a top-performing employee who is known for getting things done. She consistently demonstrates her character and competence, so officials rarely feel the need to interfere with her trajectory. When that stellar, reliable employee is tardy, there is probably more leniency than for a consistently late and average employee. It's not likely that officials have different standards for punctuality, but rather different levels of earned trust. The risk, however, is conflicting expectations and the perception of favoritism.

Maybe there's an issue so minor that the supervisor chooses to let it go. After all, he or she doesn't want to be one of those control-freak micromanagers, right?! The litmus tests here are: 1, how might ignoring this issue cause grief; and 2, is the employee being given some reasonable slack or is an uncomfortable conversation being avoided? When we ignore issues, they can fester into an inaccurate storyline that sabotages performance and relationships.

Tolerance can be healthy when we accept that others will have a different way of doing things perhaps a way that adds value to the process and work output. People's different communications styles, backgrounds and perspectives can bring breadth. In these instances, we recognize we don't need to interfere with their methodology. Instead, we measure results and relationship impacts while providing oversight in context of the organization's culture.

People earn their autonomy and freedoms, and as a manager, you shape and contribute to that condition. As Susan Scott, author of "Fierce Conversations," succinctly states, "We get what we tolerate." We define what's acceptable and what's not simply by what we allow to transpire in attitudes, language and behavior. If there are no conversations or consequences, one will experience "business as usual," which generally leads to mediocracy, not excellence.

What do employees think is accepted or expected? What do they believe is unacceptable and not tolerated? It is essential that clear expectations and both positive and constructive feedback be provided continuously to establish healthy boundaries.

Interpretation no. 2: Showing willingness to allow the existence of opinions or behavior that one does not necessarily agree with (or understands or feels comfortable with).

This kind of tolerance speaks to acknowledging and valuing diverse opinions and experiences. It demonstrates an earnest desire to understand others and a commitment to building a better way together. Being willing to be contributed to from another perspective reflects the pursuit of individual and organizational continuous improvement. Our colleagues are in essence our work family, and like families, possess different personalities, politics and dynamics that fluctuate between harmony and discord.

I have witnessed leadership teams struggle with the existence of divergent peer-to-peer opinions. Often that's due to each team member positioning himself or herself (or his or her agenda) as the best solution moving forward. Tolerating others' opinions can feel like losing ground when one's passion and ego want a certain desired outcome. If this sounds familiar, consider collectively practicing active listening and sharpening empathy. Ultimately, if every team member practices seeking to understand the others, the group likely will have a more well-thought-out decision, alignment and buy-in.

Leveraging tolerance to build camaraderie

A sense of camaraderie is a key performance indicator for healthy, high-functioning teams. If you've worked on a team that collaborated well, leveraged each other's unique strengths and problem-solved together, then you've probably experienced team synergy. But camaraderie is more than working well together. It means bringing one's authentic, candid self to the table.

When we are genuine, we make genuine connections the kind that we tend to trust and rely on. It fosters a deeper caring for each other, which creates more cohesive bonds. It has the potential to create efficiencies as people are less obstructed by masks, hidden agendas, etc. When people are encouraged to show up authentically, it's also easier to unearth and leverage their natural strengths.

People are quirky creatures. We all have control issues, egos and pet peeves or preferences. I fondly refer to one of my clients as the "island of the misfit toys." One of the things I admire about its culture is the acceptance of the distinctive individual contributions that each team member makes. Over the years I have interviewed dozens of its clients as part of a client feedback exercise; I can tell you its clients are highly satisfied with both my client's technical performance and humanness it brings.

Cut each other some slack. That does not mean accepting subpar performance or poor attitudes that's neither good leadership nor respectful. Instead, assume good intent until proven otherwise.

While I worked with a manufacturer's director of operations, he shared the challenges of a particular direct report a talented project manager with a tendency toward self-importance. Rather than look at this through the lens of frustration, the director decided to see his project manager's strengths and weaknesses, and make room for the human factor. "Who of us doesn't have a little baggage?" he said. When we sit in judgment about others, we create a critical environment, and often on issues that are not of critical importance.

What are you tolerating that you shouldn't, and what are you not tolerating that you should? Examine your work world is something not working that you are allowing to persist? Or, is there room for tolerating diverse styles in a new, productive and more rewarding way?

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Karen Natzel is a business therapist who helps leaders create healthy, vibrant and high-performing organizations.

Published: Fri, Feb 17, 2017

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