Tolerance in the Workplace

Respecting Others' Differences

Mixed Fruit

Tolerance of difference is essential in 21st-century workplaces.

© iStockphoto/kozsiv

What is tolerance? It is the consequence of humanity. We are all formed of frailty and error; let us pardon reciprocally each other's folly – that is the first law of nature. – Voltaire (François-Marie Arouet), French Writer

Bob has worked for his organization for many years. He has lots of hard-won, practical experience, and he has a specific, preferred way of doing his job.

His new manager, Janisha, is straight out of business school. She has an advanced degree and a fast-paced style, and is keen to improve the way that things are done.

Although Bob and Janisha try to get along, they're becoming increasingly intolerant of one another. Bob resents Janisha's desire to change the way he works. It frustrates Janisha that Bob won't adopt certain new technologies, such as the organization's instant messaging program, to speed up his work. Because of this, they avoid each other as much as possible.

If Bob and Janisha tried to find common ground, instead of being intolerant of one another's working styles, they could build a relationship of trust and mutual respect, instead of their current, strained one.

21st-century workplaces are often filled with people from different backgrounds, ages, races, sexual orientation, viewpoints, and religions. To work well together, it's essential that team members embrace these differences with respect and compassion. However, you also need to know where to draw the line with some behaviors.

In this article, we'll look at tolerance in the workplace: what it means, how to handle intolerance, and how to tell what shouldn't be tolerated.

What is Tolerance?

Robert Green Ingersoll, a 19th-century American politician, once said, "Tolerance is giving to every other human being every right that you claim for yourself." The Random House Unabridged Dictionary defines tolerance as "a fair, objective, and permissive attitude toward those whose opinions, practices, race, religion, nationality, etc., differ from one's own; freedom from bigotry."

Put simply, tolerance means keeping an open mind when interacting with others who are different from you, and treating everyone with respect and compassion, even when you don't share their opinions or values. It means embracing differences and recognizing that these differences help to make our world such a rich, diverse, and exciting place.

These differences can include race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, philosophy, values, physical abilities, and age. There might also be differences in viewpoints, family obligations, background, dress, work practices, political beliefs, attitude, education, and class.

Why Tolerance is Important

Human beings aren't born intolerant. If you watch young children playing in a schoolyard, they care nothing for the color of someone's skin, their gender, or the way that they're dressed. They see nothing other than a playmate.

Often, as we get older, we're taught to embrace the differences around us. For some, however, these differences may begin to challenge a sense of "safety." People often relate easily to those who are similar to themselves, but they may struggle with those who are different.

No matter how different someone else may seem, the reality is that we all share the common bond of humanity. Our emotions and life experiences bind us together, and we often have far more in common with one another than we might think.

This is why tolerance is so important. When we have an attitude of inclusion, a world of possibilities can open up.

Tolerance encourages open and honest communication, promotes creativity and innovation, fosters respect and trust, improves team work and cooperation, and encourages good work relationships. It also enhances cooperation, loyalty, and productivity – all of which are highly important in the workplace!

What Tolerance Looks Like

Tolerance in the workplace can exist in many different ways, both large and small.

  • Janet is a Christian. She respects the right and obligation that her direct report, Aamir, has to pray five times daily in accordance with his Muslim faith. She avoids scheduling meetings during these times, and makes sure that everyone on the team understands that when he closes his door, Aamir shouldn't be disturbed.
  • Sam is from a small town in the southern United States, a region known for its slow, unhurried business style. His new boss, Mark, is from New York City, which is known for doing business at the speed of light. Although the two have dramatically different working styles and expectations, they try hard to accommodate one another. Mark accepts that while Sam will always meet his deadlines, he won't answer email at night, during lunch, or on weekends. Sam understands that Mark likes things done as quickly as possible, so he does his best to get his work done before it's due.

Put simply, whenever you demonstrate understanding, empathy, and respect to someone different from you, you're practicing tolerance.

How to Encourage Tolerance in Your Team

You can do many things to encourage tolerance in your workplace.

Seek to Understand

Your team members may not believe in the same things or act in the same way as one another, and this may be causing friction. So, what can you do to improve relationships?

Start by encouraging your people to take a courteous interest in one another's beliefs and behaviors, and coach them in active listening skills  , so that they can best hear what others are saying.

You can then coach   them to appreciate the business importance of tolerance, and practice using the Perceptual Positions   technique during these sessions to explore different points of view. Your goal is to help your people be more empathic  . As such, they need to be able to put themselves in other people's shoes and see things from their perspective.

Watch What You Say

Ralph Ellison once said, "If the word has the potency to revive and make us free, it has also the power to bind, imprison, and destroy."

Being tolerant of others also extends to what you say: words have consequences, both good and bad. This is why it's important that people think carefully before they speak about sensitive things. Coach your team members to think about the people around them, and the people who will read what they write. Are they saying, or implying, anything that might hurt someone else? Is their message one of tolerance, respect, and compassion? If not, then it might be best for them stay quiet, or to revise their messages.

Set an Example

Sometimes, it's easier to teach tolerance than to practice it. So, lead by example  . Don't forget that your words and actions can influence others, so set a good example by demonstrating kindness, compassion, and tolerance with others.

As Mahatma Gandhi once said, "You must be the change you wish to see in the world."

If your people are struggling with tolerance, it's important that you let them know that intolerance, or discrimination  , is not acceptable. You need to address bad behavior at work   quickly.

Understand Cultural Differences

Chances are, your team members work with people from different cultures. Every culture has different values and worldviews, which can make it challenging at times to find common ground and work together.

There are several techniques that can help people overcome these cultural barriers.

Encourage your people to use Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner's Seven Dimensions of Culture   to understand the preferences and values of different people's cultures. Also, knowing about Hofstede's Cultural Dimensions   will give them an insight into the positions and views of people from other countries. You can also teach Cross-Cultural Communication   to help them communicate and collaborate more effectively.

Understand Different Working Styles

Tolerance also extends to people's attitudes and ways of working. Others may not do things in the same way, but this doesn't necessarily mean that they're in the wrong!

It's easy for people to become frustrated when others have different working styles. Use psychometric tests like Myers-Briggs® Personality Testing   and the Big Five Personality Traits Model   to help team members appreciate others' characteristics and working styles. This will help them get along better with people who work differently.

Models like the Margerison-McCann Team Management Profile   and Belbin's Team Roles   are useful for helping your people understand one another's different natural team roles.

When to Draw the Line

Although being tolerant means accepting others' behavior or viewpoints, it's not the same as indifference, indulgence, apathy, or condescension. It doesn't mean accepting or justifying behavior that is morally or ethically wrong, or that is harmful to someone else.

When practicing tolerance, you have to know where to draw the line with some behaviors. However, it can be challenging to know where to draw the line between "acceptable" and "unacceptable."

To determine whether a behavior is acceptable or not, ask your people to think about whether it's doing any of the following:

  • Harming someone else unnecessarily.
  • Damaging your team's mission, or damaging the organization.
  • Undermining the cohesion of the team.
  • Breaking any organizational rules or being dishonest.
  • Negatively affecting the person's work or relationships.

If they feel that the other person is behaving badly, or is doing something ethically or morally wrong, then they should know that it's OK to challenge the behavior.

For example, imagine that you work in an open plan office. Your colleague, Lee, sits near several new team members. These new people are loud, often talking to each other about topics unrelated to work, and their language and stories make him extremely uncomfortable. Lee likes to work quietly, and has trouble concentrating when these people are talking.

In this case, it's fine for him to ask them to quieten down, because their behavior is making it difficult for him to work. And it's right that you support him when he does speak up.

How people should speak up in these situations is a highly personal decision, so encourage them to use their best judgment. Instinctively, most of us know the difference between right and wrong, so people shouldn't discount what they're feeling.

Encourage your team members to ask themselves, "Will I regret not speaking up later on?" Often, people avoid speaking up against intolerance because they feel that they don't have the right, or they think that they're stepping on the other person's freedom of speech. However, with later reflection, they regret not taking a stand.

If people are unsure about what to do, let them know that they can approach you with their concerns, especially if the person in question is a team member. Ask them to let you know specifically what happened, and to communicate their concerns.

If they decide to speak up immediately, make sure that they know to keep their emotions under control  . Anger or frustration will only make other people defensive: they probably won't listen, and they certainly won't reconsider their actions with an open mind. Emotion will only entrench poor behaviors.

Instead, they should be firm and assertive  . Encourage them to quietly point out the problem and gently explain why it is an issue. They should resist the urge to reprimand or embarrass their colleague; this breeds resentment and will likely eliminate the chance for long-term change.

Key Points

Tolerance is defined as "a fair, objective, and permissive attitude toward those whose opinions, practices, race, religion, nationality, etc., differ from one's own; freedom from bigotry."

To encourage tolerance at work, people should first seek to understand others, be aware of what they say, set an example, and make an effort to understand cultural differences.

It's important to learn where to draw the line with tolerance. If someone is being hurt, or a person's words or actions are harming your mission, your team members or your organization, your people should know that it's OK to step in.

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Comment (1)
  • MichaelP wrote Over a month ago
    I found this article very relevant for me at the moment and specifically enjoyed the final key points.


    1. To practice tolerance at work, first seek to understand others, be aware of what you say, set an example, and make an effort to understand cultural differences.
    2. Learn where to draw the line with tolerance. If you see someone else being hurt, or suspect that a person's words or actions are harming your mission, your team members or your organization, take appropriate action.

    For 1. Although I try and be aware of what I say I find asking good open questions helps me understand and does not expose my views too much.

    For 2. Its harder - "appropriate action" is something I sometimes struggle with so I often just settle for action! What i think is appropriate I appreciate other may not so by just inciting change over accepting the status quo, I engage others in the pursuit of win-win outcomes.

    good thought starters tks as always for sharing.

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