Weaving business and people together

Cisterns, systems and symbolic gestures.

April 3rd, 2017


I’ve just spent a delightful 3 days working with a group of Nordic people, just outside lovely Copenhagen. I’ve always found it very easy to work with Scandinavians, not least because of their ability to speak English so brilliantly, so that even in the more challenging territory of emotions they can express what they need to with ease and eloquence. Always a source of admiration and slight embarrassment to a Brit, even a Welsh-speaking one. The language helps, but other aspects matter  more in the communication.

The Nordic nations are well known for having more equality in their societies, though even they, like most nations, struggle with bringing as much diversity of gender, race, sexual orientation and thinking styles into senior levels in their organisations, despite all the trumpeting about boardroom quotas. A small incident during a coffee break, though, really brought home to me what tiny symbolic gestures can do to gently break down the barriers. Hold onto your sense of delicacy: I’m going to talk about toilets.

Loos in Scandinavian workplaces are often unisex. It’s hard to describe how startling this is for a Brit. We are really not used to washing our hands next to a bloke in the bathroom.  Except of course, in the home, where it is perfectly normal to have gender-neutral bathrooms. In most homes, it would be bizarre to stick a sign on the door denoting who is or is not allowed in. Of course I know that in public arenas, for cultural, safety, protection, privacy and, let’s face it, hygiene and delicacy reasons, it’s helpful to have segregated facilities. But in a professional firm’s offices? Do we really need to do that?

The thing is, even silently, connections are made through common experiences. It’s well-known that one of the career-enabling things that helps you get on and up in organisations is access to power networks. Networks are developed in many ways but one way is through small informal human moments of everyday intimacy: standing in a sandwich queue together, getting in the same lift at the same time every day, finding yourself on the same train on a daily basis. I rarely ignore another woman in an office bathroom, even in an unfamiliar place. It’s easier to say something inconsequential, pass a casual compliment or the time of day, and you can strike up a tiny piece of rapport at a very human level. I assume men do the same. And of course, in a break from a difficult meeting, you can quietly form an allegiance over the hand-washing, pass a remark that unites you to another party or, either accidentally or deliberately, exclude another. For a woman in senior ranks, the long march to the loo alone in a break affords time to reflect but even walking in the same direction, in time, as someone creates a feeling of connectedness that would be denied to the ‘odd one out’. A Dane, last week, when I failed to hide my shock ad discomfort at encountering him washing his hands in the basin next to mine, casually explained to me that it was standard practice because Danish companies didn’t want men to have the opportunity to form alliances which women were excluded from simply because they sit down to pee. As simple and obvious as that.

This is, of course, about more than toilets and gender. It reveals a much larger theme. It’s about actual and symbolic ways to include or exclude ‘others’. Any majority group will find themselves, unless they take exceptional care to listen to the minor voices in a system, making decisions which favour the needs of the majority. I’ve been studying with the astoundingly wise Jan Jacob Stam recently, a master practitioner in thinking holistically and systemically. If we really want to understand a human system, we have to find a way to listen to all the voices and it doesn’t have to involve expensive surveys and huge amounts of technology. It involves standing in a different place from the usual, putting yourself in the place of the other, and listening deeply to both the spoken and unspoken, the past voices as well as the present voices. We all have a need, a yearning, to belong, to be seen and heard. If unmet, this need can become toxic to the soul, and toxic to society. I know this need, the requirement to listen and sometimes, through that, to heal, and I spend a lot of my working life helping people get better at doing this. But it’s so easy to hear those who are similar to us, and so challenging to genuinely listen to those with opposing views. Especially if we believe they are truly mistaken in their conclusions. In the matter of current world politics, my self-image as someone tolerant, willing to listen to others and value their perspective, is profoundly challenged. I don’t quite know what to do about it, and I’m not enjoying it. The effort to find some ground in common, to understand a perspective that encompasses ignorance and bigotry is challenging. I want to wait for it all to be over, but systemic problems just pop up again somewhere else. All I do know is that trying to understand is the only real answer.

P.S. There’ll be no more about plumbing for a while.

  1. A sharp reminder of how easily we fall into excluding behaviours and how our habits perpetuate an ever-narrowing ‘confirmation bias’. Your example brings to mind a story told to me by a female Finnish acquaintance, who worked in a small engineering company as the only woman with 24 male colleagues. As Fins do they frequent the sauna after work and she found herself going into the women’s sauna on her own while all the men went as a group to the male one. After a few weeks she realised she was struggling to feel involved with the mechanism of the business and, tracing it to the camaraderie of the after-work sauna, she decided to suggest they all went to the mixed sauna together instead. A brave move but it worked. We have much to learn from our Scandi friends.

    by: Alice on May 4, 2017 at 2:46 pm
    • that’s a great story. brave woman. thanks Alice.

      by: Anne Owen on May 22, 2017 at 10:07 am


Leave a Comment

All content © Anne Owen Consulting Ltd 2013 – 2022 Web design by GroganShaellDesign