The intersection of my work, writing and speaking on masculinity, as well as the diversity and inclusion work I do with organizations, has given rise to a range of compassionate frames for me around why men do what we do in the workplace. Given men’s conditioning as boys in our dominant culture of masculinity, it would surprise me if we didn’t fail to see our own blind spots at times. I certainly have mine.
At this point, men fully understand we must work to co-construct fully diverse leadership teams if we want to ensure our organizations will remain competitive. The dramatically higher productivity, innovation, and long term value creation generated by fully diverse leadership is no longer even up for debate.
If we are to succeed in this work, it is crucial that men become mindful of the ways we have been conditioned by our dominant culture of masculinity that might be impeding our success in relating with others in a more inclusive culture. Once we see the cultural landscape more clearly, we can stretch ourselves to become fully effective allies in the transformative work of growing diversity and inclusion within our organizations.
Please note, although this shouldn’t have to be said, not every aspect of our dominant culture of masculinity is problematic. Some parts create powerful and positive influences. But seeing what might have been previously unseen in terms of why men make the choices we make, can only be an advantage. This growth in “masculinity awareness” for men and women is at the core of Dr. Saliha Bava and my work as diversity and inclusion consultants and coaches. Why men do what we do, is also the central issue I explore in my book, The Little #MeToo Book for Men.
Which brings me to men and jokes in the workplace.
A while ago, I traveled to Los Angeles (not the actual city) to speak with high-ranking male partners at an international ad agency (not the actual industry) about some challenges they were encountering. Men and women were reporting to the organization’s diversity and inclusion officer that some partners were joking in ways that weren’t landing well at all.
Case in point: a male partner opened a meeting by announcing that a female partner in the agency, one of the most productive members of the organization, was on parental leave and had given birth the day before. The male partner went on to note that the baby and mother were doing fine. Then he jokingly added, “And given what a powerhouse Alice is (not her real name), I’m surprised she’s not back in the office, yet.” He then went on with the meeting.
For some, this joke fell flat, and understandably so. To understand why we have to consider the ways in which jokes are designed to operate. The reason the best jokes are funny is that they are designed to make us wonder what the intent of the joke teller actually is. It is in the duality of “did they mean this, or did they mean that” that the humor can arise for us.
Was he complimenting Alice and wishing her a long and relaxing parental leave? Was he acknowledging they would all be playing catch up in her absence? Was he saying, “I hope she comes back soon?” How could the others in the room really know?
Jokes also do something else equally important. They immediately call up the context in which the joke is embedded. In this case, this particular joke’s context includes the two partners’ gender, their relative levels of power, the historical issues around women in the workplace, the male partner’s previous statements about parental leave policy at the firm (or lack thereof), and much more.
This is why jokes that reference hot button issues like parental leave policy are, as a rule, a bad idea. Especially when made by men with a lot of power at the top of the org chart.
But my decade of researching and writing about masculinity also invites me to ask the question, “Why do men often feel the impulse to tell a joke in these moments?” The fact is, our dominant culture of masculinity, what many call man box culture, has trained men to avoid expressing in authentic ways about their internal emotional reactions or their ongoing challenges. The impact of this shaming of expression in men’s lives is catastrophic, but one of the offshoots of this has been that boys and men are left with few options but to joke about challenging issues.
Men almost always respond to even low levels of stress (ours or others) by telling a joke to acknowledge it.
It’s how men acknowledge our awareness of the challenges confronting us or others while hiding our deeper more authentic emotional responses. It’s a relief valve of sorts. A way to say, “Yeah, this is a thing, but, hey, I’m not worried.” But here’s the secret. At the moment we tell the joke, we often are signaling, “Yeah, I actually am uncertain about this.”
Regardless of their level of power or authority, my response to male leaders who ask if it’s okay to joke about challenging issues is, “Don’t do it.” The questionable benefit of the joke regarding a hot button issue (can I thread this needle) is not worth the risk is posed for being unclear and potentially, widely misinterpreted. To fully understand why the reaction to jokes will likely always be unpredictable, we need to be attentive to the powerful role of the underlying context.
For example, a powerful male partner, who is known to say repeatedly, “We want our employees, from every part of this organization to take their full parental leave. That includes the men. If you show up here before your allotted leave is up, I will personally be sending you home. We owe it to every person here to make sure they are free to commit to their family’s needs equally. So take your leave.”
A leader, who speaks publicly and repeatedly in this way, has perhaps a bit of wiggle room around telling a joke about parental leave, but ultimately, what’s the point? Ask any marketing person and they will tell you, “Stay on message.” A joke is the opposite of that.
Additionally, even a leader who has spoken clearly in these ways can not know the level of anxiety others in the room may be feeling about their own parental leave options. What if, for instance, someone’s spouse at home has a lot of fear about their partner taking the full benefit? That tension will inform how that team member hears our joke.
As men, even in top leadership positions, we can often feel the pressure to fall back on coping mechanisms forced on us long ago by a culture of masculinity that gives us few ways to express the complexity of being human. When a joke comes up for us, we can learn to hit the pause button. We can check in with ourselves and ask, “Do I feel uncomfortable about this subject or event? If so, why?” We can ask ourselves how exactly telling a joke would serve us (or anyone) and why a clearer statement of our intention might not serve us, and those we work with, better.
Considering context in these ways is just one of the relational capacities my partner, Dr. Saliha Bava and I teach in our relational intelligence workshops.
Relational intelligence is a powerful resource for organizations that are seeking to grow a robust culture of diversity and inclusion. This is primarily because it resources people to bridge across differences by teaching them a range of capacities for centering human relationships so crucial to modern global businesses. Feel free to contact us about providing a workshop or coaching for your organization.
Our book Relational Practices for Organizations will be coming out in
2020. You can reach us at RemakingManhood.com.
Previously published on Medium.com.
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