Whether it's your parents or your boss, sometimes you just have to say 'no'.
Last week I stood up to my father. Perhaps not in an I’ll-never-join-you, Star Wars kind of way, but on its own level and in its own galaxy it was every bit as important. Bear with me as I briefly explain this tale, and the lesson I am taking from it which will impact upon potentially the day to day business I carry out (or perhaps don’t).
It’s not often that I receive any e-mails from my dad; despite being pretty well regarded in his own profession, he got to his position before the advent and widespread take-up of electronic mail so isn’t as au-fait with it as his offspring are. It was therefore with some surprise then that I began getting his name popping up in my inbox. Were these family secrets he was choosing to convey to me? Perhaps he had decided that e-mail was the correct medium to impart some pearls of wisdom with which I would be able to make my work better and therefore lead a happier life. With a mixture of interest and fear I opened the latest e-mail which I, along with others, had been copied into.
Without regurgitating it word for word, I’ll say simply that the first line could have been rewritten to open with ‘I’m not racist, but…’. What followed was the usual chain e-mail which started off with some valid and real concerns about society and that something needed to be done to help people be proud of being British. So far so normal, if a little right wing in language. Of course, what followed was an inexplicable and random leap to somehow bringing immigrants into the arguement, and blaming all of society’s ills upon them.
Normally when these missives arrive from whatever source I simply hit the shift-delete combo. I know that my dad isn’t a racist, even if he does have some strange aversion to most continental food, and that this was probably just an e-mail he’d given a quick skim read through and decided to send on as proof that he ‘gets the internet’. However, this time it felt a litle bit different. I’d been sent something which I didn’t agree with by someone who’s opinion I value and which contained a message which, in its own small way, was part of the underlying problems which divide groups of people on arbitrary or seemingly random lines. So this time I drew my fingers away from the total delete keys, took the bait and hit reply instead. I didn’t get abusive, patronising or evangelical in my response, simply pointing out that whilst I understood his sentiment, the arguments the e-mail he put forward to support them detracted significantly from his meaning, and in essence did more harm than good. It was with no small amount of trepidation and a twinge of fear that I hit the send button and sat back to await my reply.
Would he be angry, and fly off the handle at me for having the cheek to not only disagree with him but to tell him he was part of the problem and to copy others (siblings in the main) into the reply? Would he refuse to copy me in to future such e-mails, considering it not worth the hassle of trying to convince me that he was right, cutting me out of the loop entirely? Would he ‘take it offline’ and speak to me in person to tell me that I shouldn’t have shown other people that I disagreed?
Actually, in the end none of that happened. He made a few jokes on a bit of a tangent, and after a few more light-hearted back and forths which included others I felt I’d managed to get my opinion across, said in clear terms that I didn’t agree with that message and that I wouldn’t be willing to stand by and be party to something which – however benign in intent – actually made me uncomfortable. No-one got hurt, and I honestly believe that we both learned a little more about each other and have a greater understanding and level of respect for the others views and attitudes.
Now I hear you wondering what on earth any of that has to do with local government. It may have been entirely unrelated to normal work, but in its own way this incident is changing a major part of how I have worked in the past and how I hope to work in the future.
It showed me I can say no to those more senior than I. (more…)