Last week a co-worker gave me a book, "Orbiting the Giant Hairball", by Gordon MacKenzie. This co-worker is in a leadership role and he has taken to giving this book to everyone he hires. He also gives them a button that says, "Proceed Until Apprehended", which is his way of saying, "Do the right thing, don't let the turkeys get you down, don't let the status quo be your guide." I like him and his renegade spirit, even if it does scare me a bit from an HR perspective. Anyway, I digress...
I had the chance to read "Orbiting..." on the plane ride down to a retreat in Monterey earlier this week. I highlighted and flagged like crazy - so many great lessons and examples about leadership, creativity, and challenging assumptions! I highly recommend the book.
There was one section that I have continued to think about, and it had to do with teasing, particularly in a corporate environment. MacKenzie tells of a woman who stepped up bravely to draw something for a group, and was then teased by the group until she shrunk away, having lost her confidence and wishing she hadn't put herself out there at all. MacKenzie says he recognized the teasing immediately for what it was - shaming. Here's an excerpt describing how he confronted the group:
“Teasing is a disguised form of shaming… I suspect that when you teased this woman, it was an unconscious effort to throw her off balance – to stop her from risking, which she was most clearly beginning to do. Why would you want to do that? …[B]ecause we don’t want to admit to others or ourselves that we are trying to stop growth, we disguise our shaming as teasing – ‘all in the spirit of good fun.’ ”
I think there's really something to what MacKenzie said. Now, I know there is a difference between teasing someone whom you love and care for, or at least genuinely like, and with whom you have trust to the extent that you can have a laugh over a blunder or an old joke. I can't say that all teasing equates to shaming. But I will concede that there is a fine line, and it is too often crossed, even among friends and family.
I've felt the kind of teasing that is, in fact, a form of shaming, and I think I'll know it when I see it in the future. At work, I've felt it from some of my male counterparts when they're teasing me about how talkative I am, or how animated my communication style is, or how passionately I feel about a work situation. When they're teasing me, there are smiles all around (including on my face) and the scene takes on a bit of a frat boy vibe. I generally say something cute like, "I know you wouldn't tease me if you didn't like me." I want them to know, "I can take it", so I never let on that I feel like a little sister or the newcomer to an established club. As I reflect on this, it makes me pretty angry, though I'm not sure if I'm more angry at them or myself.
I think this kind of teasing is a way for some individuals to tell me to stop standing out, stop doing things differently, get in the box. In other words, stop shining. I think it's driven by their own fears or feelings of inadequacy, not by my behavior. I don't believe those feelings are necessarily to the same extent for all who are teasing me, but it certainly fits the bill for some of them. And for the rest? It's just inappropriate in a group situation. In fact, it might make someone else feel left out or "small" to have one or two individuals demonstrating their deeper friendship by teasing in front of the rest.
At this point, I recognize that any reaction from me other than unflustered and unaffected, will likely start the "can't take a joke, over-sensitive" chatter, which might be just as difficult to endure. So, I'm not sure if I will behave differently the next time I am teased. For now, I'm just writing this blog post to get it off my chest, and hoping that those who read it share it with others and think about whether they are teasing in friendship or teasing from a place of insecurity. At the end of the day, I just don't think work is a place for teasing. Sure, let's have fun. But teasing is best reserved for your closest, most intimate and most trusting relationships. I don't know about you, but those relationships very rarely exist for me at work.