As I watched the video of the murder of George Floyd I was overwhelmed by the fact that not only were witnesses calling out to the man crushing Mr. Floyd’s neck but also they called to that man’s colleagues, his teammates; asking them to intervene, asking them to look at the dying man, to hear his cries and check his pulse. What is it that causes us to turn a blind eye to wrong doing of even the most violent and heinous nature when it is one of “our own” who is the perpetrator?
With regard to police officers the “blue wall of silence” is a specific phrase used to describe a supposed informal rule that police officers are not supposed to report on a colleague’s errors, misconducts, or crimes including police brutality. While this “rule” has a specific name related to the police, I don’t believe that it is unique to the police force* and although the nature of the job means that the implications of what could be condoned or covered up are of a more serious nature and the fact that police officers are relied on to “protect us” makes the practice even more frightening, the idea that it would be breaking a code to intervene or call for the end of a colleagues inappropriate behaviour and/or report the behaviour after the fact is highly problematic anywhere and probably more frequently held than we like to think about.
Like most things, this is complex. Of course, a significant part of the strength of a team is the fact that members support each other. Support means different things to different people but it’s actually clear how healthy team member support can become unhealthy.
|Healthy Team Support||Unhealthy Team Support|
|Encouraging each other and focusing on strengths.||Believing that your teammate is always right or just and/or simply tuning out anything that is negative about them.|
|Allowing mistakes to be growth opportunities and not reasons for criticism.||Ignoring errors and not holding each other accountable.|
|Creating and maintain trust.||Believing that trust means that you can’t disagree or question.|
|Setting clear rules and operating parameters.||Setting rules and operating parameters that don’t allow for outside influence or visibility, and that focus on protecting individuals over the group or integrity of the goal or work.|
|Championing each other to others.||Creating a false perception of perfection of team members with those who are not on the team.|
|Accepting differences.||Believing that even if I think you’re doing something wrong, I don’t have to nor should I speak to you about that because you can do what you want and I can do what.|
|Picking up the slack when a team member falls behind or is struggling.||Not bringing forward legitimate concerns about performance issues and what is happening with the work.|
It is unquestionably difficult to say something and it’s difficult to hold your teammates accountable particularly if you are not a “leader” position. Many (if not most) people dislike conflict and seek ways to avoid it. In a situation of bullying it’s easy to connect to your own emotional vulnerability and unless you are extremely fortunate, most people’s fears of becoming the victim are strong enough to cause them to look the other way or simply feel powerless to do anything.
In addition to our natural instinct to avoid a confrontation, we’re all familiar with the expression “don’t rock the boat”. Many employees are afraid that if they speak up or out, their job and livelihood will be on the line.
When I listen to employees talk about why they don’t speak up, some of the top things I hear are:
- Fear of retaliation
- They dislike the appearance of challenging authority:
- They’ve been ignored in the past.
- They don’t know how to bring this feedback up – they haven’t been taught how to give feedback and they feel unable to.
- Organizations communicate consciously or unconsciously that they are not open to the feedback.
So what does this mean?
We need to tap into our courage and accountability. Organizations and team leaders need to create policies that protect employees who speak out from retaliation and they need to stand by and live up to these policies, they need to listen when employees bring issues forward and courageously take action. The action might even be, admitting that you don’t know how to fix the problem but committing to figuring it out.
As individuals, we need to start by looking at what scares us. We need to stop avoiding our feelings when something makes us uncomfortable and we need to turn towards it rather than away. We need to bring inappropriate and bullying behaviour forward to our leaders and we need to be an active part of the solution.
Forgive yourself if you have failed to step up in the past but also accept that now is the time to act. Get real support. If the “support” on your team looks more like the unhealthy support or if there is no support at all, talk to someone at your Employee Assistance Program, talk to your friends and colleagues outside of work, and if you’re really stuck talk to your doctor as s/he will be able to recommend local resources.
If you feel you are being bullied or harassed at work in Ontario, you can go here for more information.
If you would like to talk about how I can support you to create even healthier team support, please message me here.
*I also want to add how moved I am by the showing of support and solidarity many police officers have shown through these recent protests. You can see some of the documentation of this here.