The Emperor’s New Clothes

“The Emperor’s New Clothes,” Vilhelm Pedersen
The Emperor’s New Clothes

Hans Christian Anderson illustrated the vulnerability of leaders who are unable to self assess in his wonderful tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Another important observation that Anderson made was that the Emperor’s ‘executive leadership team’ would not tell him the truth about his lack of coverage, or protection for fear of retribution. So, because of his vanity and inability to engender trust in others he paraded through the streets of Denmark in an invisible suit of clothes. The only one who pointed out the truth was a boy in the crowd. “Out of the mouths of babes..”

Nolo Contendere
Nolo Contendere is a Latin legal expression meaning that the accused neither accepts nor denies guilt. A recent example of this is Bob Filner, Mayor of San Diego, who has been accused of sexually harassing as many as 16 different women during his career. Mr. Filner claims that he has never been trained in sexual harassment prevention and so is not responsible for his own actions and that the City of San Diego should pay his legal bills pertaining to these accusations as a result of his lack of training.
Take it From the Top
As I was about to begin a training session for the executive leadership team of a former employer, the head of the organization approached me, put his arm around my shoulder and said, “Wendy, does this really need to take three and a half hours? You can make the session shorter, can’t you? Say, two hours?” He gazed at me very directly, you might say, with emphasis, to make sure that I understood the message. He was not really asking me to shorten the session. He was tellingme to do so. We had customized the session for this group, to assure that they understood their role and responsibility to prevent harassment and discrimination in the workplace. Now, after months of preparation, I was being told to cut the session almost in half. I was not happy, but I knew that I was not empowered to defy him. How could hebe exempt from this training that every employee in the organization was mandated to participate in? When organizations are committed to preventing harassment and discrimination, they hold everyoneaccountable to upholding the law, regardless of rank. Successful leaders understand that in order to be effective they must lead by example, by exhibiting impeccable behavior, not by establishing a double-standard.
On best behavior?
If a consultant had been retained to facilitate the training session that I describe above, the intimidation that I experienced would never have occurred. The head of the organization would have been on his best behavior. This may seem self-serving coming from a consultant who stands to benefit by those who take my advice, but I have spent many years as an ‘in-house’ subject matter expert who was hired because of my expertise and asked or told to bring in ‘experts’ to facilitate training after I was on board. I learned that outsiders could be more effective, not because they knew more about preventing sexual harassment than I did, but because they would be taken more seriously than I would by the organization’s leaders. My mission has remained the same regardless of whether my role is employee or outside consultant – to end discrimination and harassment in the workplace. Sometimes that has meant bringing in an outsider to effectively get the message across, rather than conveying it myself.
Learning is fun!
Most organizations provide mandatory sexual harassment prevention training although the quality of that training varies wildly. What matters most is not whether education is mandatory or not, but that the education provided is effective. [I intentionally use the word education instead of the word training here, as we are discussing changing one’s behavior and competencies, not how to operate one’s cell phone.] If the education provided is not interesting to the participants, they will not retain critical information. Adult learning theory is very clear: make learning fun if you want it to make a difference! This rule is applicable regardless of the subject matter. To be clear: I do not think that sexual harassment is fun, but the process of helping others to identify it and prevent it should be. Even serious topics can be made approachable. So, the opportunity for subject matter experts is to think about how people learn, why people need to know how to behave in the workplace and elsewhere, and how to capture the attention of everyone in every educational session. The opportunity for employers, regardless of sector or industry is to make sure that everyone in their organization is accountable, even the Emperor.

 

 

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