Have you ever been part of a conversation at work where someone is sharing a personal opinion about someone else on your team and you’re left feeling uncomfortable?
Here’s a prime example that I’ve been witness to. A client was considering assigning a project to a member of his team. Someone else jumped in to share concerns that the person in question might not be able to handle the project since they were a single mother.
When my client asked why the person thought that might influence the woman’s ability to handle the project, the colleague went on to describe the potential candidate as “flighty, disorganized and unreliable”.
That’s a whole lot of personal opinion.
No facts or data regarding the woman’s job performance were shared. Just this one colleague’s perception of the woman, accompanied by her assumptions about how this would influence the woman’s ability to complete the proposed tasks.
Now, not all assumptions are also discriminatory, such as in this example.
However, making assumptions and sharing personal opinions about others is unquestionably detrimental to team cohesiveness.
To be clear, it’s just plain toxic.
When we observe people making assumptions or sharing personal opinions about someone else in the workplace, it’s important to stand up and set firm boundaries about what it is and isn’t acceptable to say at work.
Personal opinions do not have a place at work.
And yet, they are the foundation of many of the conversations that we have as part of our professional lives.
Sharing personal opinions about others is so commonplace that we frequently don’t even realize that we’re doing it.
Are you sharing personal opinions at work without even realizing it?
Personal opinions include using any adjectives to label someone. Examples would include referring to someone as being unmotivated, lazy, rigid, perfectionistic, obsessive, dedicated, hardworking, reliable, etc..
I consider these to be personal opinions because they are based on an interpretation of facts, which are then filtered through our own life experience. For instance, someone who follows a set routine might be considered by one person to be “disciplined”, while another person might describe them as being “inflexible”.
Same facts. Two different descriptors.
Hence, using descriptive words to refer to someone = sharing a personal opinion.
To step away from sharing personal opinions about others, we need to step away from using these labels.
Uh… So… What else can we do?
Instead of describing people with adjectives, learning to use language that focuses on the observable behaviours of the individual will open the door to more meaningful conversations.
I’ll walk you back through the example that I shared earlier about the stay at home mom.
What if, when the colleague had shared her concerns, instead of referencing that the candidate was a single mom and was “flighty, disorganized and unreliable”, she had said, “I have concerns about her ability to lead a project of this scale. She’s missed deadlines on the last 4 projects that have been assigned to her. We weren’t advised in advance of the delay on the last project and the client was extremely upset”.
Now THAT would open the door to some real discussion.
When we use labels to describe individuals, people tend to either join in the negativity or they just feel uncomfortable. They may try to convince you that your judgment of the person is wrong, or they might avoid sharing their perspective entirely.
Regardless… no real conversation about the actual concerns takes place.
Helping teams become more conscious of how the language they use with one another impacts how they listen to and hear one another is a central focus of my consulting work. When people can learn alternate ways to express their feelings and needs, conflict subsides and collaboration flourishes.
Start by trying to catch yourself when you’re using descriptive language instead of discussing observable behaviours, as a first step.
Additionally, if you find yourself in a situation where someone else is sharing their personal opinions about someone else at work, try saying, “I don’t feel comfortable having conversations like this”.
And then, stay firm. If the conversation persists, excuse yourself.
Bringing such personal opinions into the workplace is simply not appropriate.
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