Tuesday, 20 May 2014

The myth of tolerance

The Oxford dictionary defines tolerance as "...the ability or willingness to tolerate the existence of opinions or behaviour that one dislikes or disagrees with..."
Other dictionaries suggest that 'open or broad mindedness' or even 'patience' are suitable definitions.
We are persuaded that tolerance is a good and noble trait.  We ought to find a way to get along with everyone in every circumstance.  What is right in my eyes may be entirely different from someone else's view.  There seems nothing intrinsically wrong with that perspective.  You know, live and let live.
However, it seems to me that somewhere along this path, tolerance has been usurped by its' evil twin ... indifference.   Where that happens, the graciousness of tolerance has been replaced by the inaction of those who are not willing to get involved.
To appreciate this difference, let me use this example.  
You are in a bar and someone is drinking and getting loud and somewhat disruptive.  It is beginning to spoil your evening but you are told that the person is celebrating a special occasion.  So you let it pass.  The evening progresses and the person becomes noticeably inebriated and then heads to their car to drive home.  You let them leave.  In both instances you allowed a certain disagreeable behaviour to be continued.  But were you tolerant...or indifferent.
The point is that in too many instances in society today we are confusing the two, often with tragic consequences.  And the confusion extends to the workplace as well.  We routinely tolerate unacceptable behaviour that we choose to attribute to stress, overwork or someone just 'being myself' or 'letting off steam'.  But if that behaviour is discriminatory, and we don't respond, can we be tolerant or indifferent?

We must have the courage to take a stand and become intolerant more often.  But being intolerant means we must act, we must  actually take and defend a position.  As a leader this may mean upholding an unpopular decision.  Opposing discrimination is not a difficult decision to defend, but there will be more subtle issues that still require you to take a stand in which indifference may seem to be preferable.

THIS is the point at which authentic leadership rises to the top.

Where do you need to stop being indifferent and instead become intolerant? 

When you can act on principle instead of expediency, you will know that have reached that goal.