Encountering the ‘other’ at work

Our neighbourhoods and social circles are never as diverse as we think, and work is the last place where we are put together with people who hold genuinely different views

In the lead up to the EU Referendum in the UK this week, we have heard people claiming that, despite the polls, we are heading for a landslide. Their logic is based on their experience that 'I’ve not met anybody who will be voting Leave/Remain' (Delete as applicable). The truth is that our families, neighbourhoods and social circles are never as diverse as we think they are, and the people who inhabit those spaces are very much like us. Work remains the last place where we are forced into an organised situation with people who hold genuinely different views. What does that mean for social cohesion, personal growth and progression?

The tendency towards finding ourselves in others through our choice of friends has been magnified enormously by the rise in social media and, perhaps, the associated decline of print and other broadcast media. Rather than a set of remotely edited perspectives on the world around us, we instead self-select the voices and opinions that we want to hear. If we don’t like a view that is being expressed, rather than shout at the TV or tut at the newspaper, we can simply ‘block’ that voice. We have the power to narrow down the voices we hear until all we have is a set of views of the world that we are comfortable with and which reaffirm our own.

The workplace is different. For many, this is the only place other than a family gathering where people are forced into a situation with people they may not otherwise choose to associate with. Often these unsought relationships become intimate — not in a romantic way — but in the way that a relationship necessarily will if you spend the best part of 7 hours together each day. Where else will you see 18-year-olds alongside 60-year-olds to whom they are unrelated? Where else will you see people with significantly different incomes or backgrounds interacting and working together? All of this happens in the workplace and we are forced to encounter the other rather than simply self-selecting people with whom we feel comfortable.

It is this forced exposure to the other that is often at the heart of workplace disputes. I have often heard exasperated managers or HR practitioners ask why we need all these procedures, why we need mediation and formal processes. Outside of work, they argue, adults are able to manage their own relationships and find their own solutions. The reason is the inability in an organised situation to simply walk away from, leave or block those with whom you struggle.

There are benefits too though. We can learn huge amounts from this encounter with the other. If we listen, and watch, and engage with the other and open our minds we can begin to grow and become more than we were to begin with. By learning that there are different perspectives to our own, and that all those perspectives are legitimate, we begin to move on again from the simplistic choices to either ‘follow’ or ‘block’ a voice. Instead, we can learn new ways of seeing the world and, even if we find them problematic, learn about the people who hold views of the world that are very different to our own. We can meet people we have never met before. We can begin to understand why Jane has a ‘Help for Heroes’ sticker in her car, and we can begin to understand why Richard is uncomfortable with that. We can stop seeing the head scarf and begin to see Sameena.

Work fulfils many needs in society that are well documented. This role of work and the workplace as being the last significant encounter with the other is under developed, but will, I am sure, become more important as we think about the future of work being human.