Something you will never see on your local or network TV broadcast: Sports Time with SCOTT! My friends and colleagues know I’m not exactly a sportsperson. However, as with most topics, it’s a little more complicated than that. And by the end of this blog, I promise I’ll make the connection between sports and inclusion in the workplace.
ACTIVITIES CAN UNITE OR DIVIDE US
Let me clarify the sports thing: It’s not as if I’m anti-sport. As a student, I attended every football at three different schools (Cedar Cliff High School in Pennsylvania, James Madison University, and Ohio State). That’s nine seasons! As a child, I also played little league baseball, albeit relegated to the outfield where I could do the least damage.
It’s not as if I didn’t scream like a super-fan when JMU’s basketball team rose to NCAA tournament prominence in the early ’80s; I loved the game, the action, and the community it brought to our otherwise sleepy Shenandoah Valley, Virginia former teachers’ college. It was exhilarating. Go Duke Dogs!
Finally, I appreciate when colleagues or friends use sports from the previous weekend as the icebreaker in meetings or calls, even though we know that not everyone follows or cares about sports. I don’t see it as inherently exclusionary if nearly everyone is involved in the chat or teammates are conscious enough to engage with the other (non-fan) people present.
But like any discussion, we need to be aware of drawing people into conversations that are intended to connect us.
WHAT’S YOUR COVER?
I’ll admit I was a phony-fake sports fan for a LONG time. For years I decided to “go along to get along” to be able to talk sports at Monday morning meetings. I scanned the sports pages or caught the Sunday night local news sportscast so I had the bare minimum to participate in the inevitable sports chat.
It wasn’t very authentic. It was a cover.
I’m sure it has to do with my long and not-that-unusual journey of struggling to navigate male connection in a world where the masculine and the accompanying assumed restrictions on what’s normal to discuss in the US has largely been set by cisgender, straight, white males.
It was NOT exhausting to “cover” like this. It was really nothing, in hindsight. And, it wasn’t authentic. That’s all it was. I’m not overblowing this as non-inclusive culture, non-inclusive behavior, etc. It was and is the norm in many organizations I’ve worked in and supported. It was and is the norm, at least that’s what I still see as a consultant working with clients.
Here’s the point. I didn’t know what I didn’t know, so I kept on playing the game of what I thought was expected of me. Now I know better, and now I’m happier.
CALLING MY BLUFF
One of my clients, a USA transportation and distribution company, asked to partner with me to implement an inclusion strategy with three men who happened to be sports fans. We often began our weekly progress meetings with a perfunctory sports chat. On one of these meetings where I hadn’t done my Sunday night “homework,” one of the guys asked, “Scott, what did you think about the end of the Atlanta Braves game!!??”
(Crickets as my wheels turned: What to say?)
In hindsight, it must have been divine providence that caused me to inhale and announce, authentically for the first time, that I don’t follow sports . . . at all.
(Crickets as their wheels must have been turning. What the heck?)
After (probably) two seconds that felt like two minutes, the leader of the project said: “That’s cool, Scott. What are you into? We could talk about that instead of the sports stuff.”
After some thought and a deep inhalation, I said, “One of my passions, ever since I was in high school, has been musical theater, especially in New York, on and off-Broadway.”
My client replied, “I LOVE Broadway! My wife and I went to New York a while back and we still talk about how great the actor Patina Miller was in Sister Act. We’re getting ready to book another trip.”
His colleagues then named their favorite shows and then asked me to name my top three favorite shows of all time. (If you care: Hamilton, Rent, and Godspell.)
The Broadway baby part of me was suddenly beaming. And here’s the thing: I now know, truly know, that it doesn’t matter if they like what I like. Me being authentic and having others acknowledge my passion or interest is enough. Even if they don’t do that, I have decided, I gotta be me. Maybe it’s maturity (probably). Maybe it’s working in DEI for 30 years (definitely doesn’t hurt). Or, maybe we’re evolving as we do the work of helping organizations and managers and teammates to acknowledge that diversity isn’t an ideal; it’s the reality of people showing up to be with each other in work or play.
And so that’s the personal learning I bring to workshops lately. It’s not enough to ask your teammates who they are, what they value, or what matters to them. If leaders aren’t able and willing, and even excited, to “go below the waterline” to be a little more vulnerable, we can’t expect those we lead to feel that it’s safe to share their love of Broadway, their passion for anime, their healthy addiction to a video game, or their volunteer work with animals. We are whole and complex people seeking a sense of belongingness for our whole being, not just our skills and talents.
THREE WAYS TO CREATE AN ENVIRONMENT OF BELONGINGNESS.
*Remember the power of open-ended questions in one-on-ones or staff gatherings.
- What’s something you do in your free time that brings you joy?
- If money was no object, what would do with your time to contribute to the world?
- What should I know about you so that I can be a better manager or mentor to you?
*Remember that leaders usually set the stage for what’s safe, what’s acceptable, what’s allowable, and what is normal in the workplace culture. Be willing to answer the above questions yourself first, even before you ask others to share. You are the model, the pacesetter.
*Check out this book I like: Belonging: The Key to Transforming and Maintaining Diversity, Inclusion and Equality at Work by Kathryn Jacob, Sue Unerman, and Mark Edwards, 2020.
Do you have similar stories? Please share them in the comments.