Not Another Training!
Throughout my working career I have had the misfortune of being required to participate in dozens of group training sessions. My normal reaction both before and after the sessions was, “Great! There’s an hour of my life I’ll never get back!” Not to disparage the presenters or their message, but a little common sense and respect for others would eliminate the need for most of the trainings I have experienced. So, needless to say when I heard Guaranty was conducting company-wide sensitivity training I was not enthusiastic. Jokes were made about why would you train people to be more sensitive when everyone seems to be overly sensitive these days, and plans were made to avoid the training.
And Then The Worm Turned
Guaranty RV Super Centers and Guaranty Discount Chevrolet combine to employ nearly four hundred people and gathering them all in one place, at one time, for a training session is inefficient at best. To keep the “class” size manageable and to avoid shutting down entire departments, four training sessions were scheduled over two days. From the time the first session ended, reports began to circulate about how good this training was. I remained skeptical, but decided I would not develop a terribly sudden sickness when my turn came to attend the training.
The older I get the easier it is to admit when I am wrong, and boy was I wrong. The training was one of the best experiences I have ever been forced to have. Some of the tone of this blog has been negative, including the idea of being forced to attend this training, but without the negativity we would have no point of reference for how positive the results were. Over the course of roughly an hour Dr. Johnny Lake, PhD taught me about myself and about my co-workers through his personal stories and the examination of human nature. Dr. Lake’s message was timely, spot on, and reassuring in the uncertain world we all live in today. Dr. Lake is an international consultant, trainer and speaker certified in programs dealing with leadership, diversity, community-building, cross-cultural communication and interactions skills, equity and ethics for youth and adults, but he views himself as a story sharer because, “Once we share a story, we’ll never be strangers again.”
I am thankful I was forced to attend because, if given a choice, I would have declined and I would have missed an opportunity to learn about myself and the amazing men and women I have the privilege to work with. I am glad Guaranty made the “learning opportunity” (Dr. Lake’s preferred description because, as he says, “Training suggests deficits, while learning opportunities are something we all need and benefit from having.”) mandatory because it illustrates our commitment to improve not only our business practices but our relationships with co-workers, customers, and even our own families. It also demonstrates that Guaranty is not afraid to deal with what can be uncomfortable topics in our efforts to ensure a work place where everyone feels safe and supported.
Sensitivity training is a bit of a misnomer in this case as Dr. Lake’s presentation was more about being sensitive to, or aware of, our programmed reactions and our preconceived notions than being sensitive to others’ feelings. Of course, paying attention to how we perceive and treat people and being sensitive to their feelings are two sides of the same coin. As a person of color Dr. Lake has experienced racism both intentional and unintentional, but he admittedly has been guilty of stereotyping himself. Stereotyping is a normal human practice for all of us, but when we recognize our own stereotypes, we can interrupt and manage them.
To illustrate, he shared with us two stories, both dealing with stereotypes and both dealing with basketball. He recalled that once at the conclusion of a presentation an audience member approached him and made a point to tell Dr. Lake that he had played college basketball and was the only white guy on the team. It was a clumsy attempt at establishing common ground after a presentation that dealt with race and gender stereotypes and how we base or opinions on them. It was also a perfect example of how we unconsciously perpetuate stereotypes. I am sure the man was trying to bridge a gap between himself and Dr. Lake, but by assuming that because he is black Dr. Lake must play basketball the stereotype influenced the man’s approach.
To show how human it is to allow stereotypes to shape our interactions, Dr. Lake shared a second story about an exceptionally tall woman working in the cafeteria during a weeklong conference at a state university. At one point while he was making his way through the lunch line, Dr. Lake said he commented to this woman, ” Wow, you’re tall. I bet you played a lot of basketball growing up.” On the final day of the conference the woman asked if she could speak to him privately, and proceeded to explain that all her life people had made assumptions about her height and that it hurt her feelings when people did so.
Stereotypes And The Road To Missed Opportunities
The point is that allowing stereotypes to shape our first impressions focuses on the minor cultural or physical differences while distracting us from the fact that no matter your country of origin, skin color, or religious beliefs we are more alike than we are different. How often in life do we get to know someone and realize that for all the exterior or surface differences, you have more in common than you could have ever imagined? I believe this is what Dr. Lake means when he says once you share a story you can never be strangers. It is easy to stereotype a stranger, but taking the time to get to know someone makes them an individual and immune to stereotypes.
Every person is different, but it’s often those differences that interest us in one another. What a boring world it would be if we were all the same. At our core we all want the same things; happiness, fulfillment, to be valued, and to be loved. How we get there is unique and affects the way we see the world around us. This difference is the bounty of the human experience. Being able to value the perspective of others, even if it differs from our own, without automatically dismissing it as wrong allows us to experience the world through someone else’s eyes. If we can master this art we could all enjoy the wisdom others have gained without having to have their same experiences. Different should not be synonymous with wrong, it can simply be different. Believe it or not, two different points of view can both be correct. To demonstrate this, Dr. Lake had two volunteers stand face to face and then he asked them to point to the left. They pointed in different directions by the compass, but they were both pointing left. Even though they were pointing in opposite directions they were still both correct.
Although I have mentioned Guaranty very little in this blog, I want to emphasize that I was provided this experience because Guaranty is a company committed to improvement with the courage to address some antiquated ways of thinking that still permeate society. From the day I began my career here at Guaranty the stated goal has been to be a World Class Organization. Providing encouragement and support for advancement to a diverse workforce is vital to that pursuit. I am proud to work for a company that provides opportunities for advancement based on ability alone. I am proud to work for a company that recognizes that it IS its employees and that investing in those employees is investing in the company. I am proud to work for a company that makes it mandatory to listen to a presenter remind us that we are in control of how we treat each other, and that treating each other with respect and kindness enriches all our lives. I am proud to work for Guaranty, and I am proud they forced me to go!