The guru on the stage was demonstrating his executive coaching approach with an audience volunteer so that the other 800 of us could learn his technique. I knew little about coaching and was curious. This Ivy League university conference seemed like a good place to learn.
The guru started interrogating the woman on the stage with him, cutting her off before she could fully answer his questions, barking that she wasn’t answering his questions, and flippantly responding, “Really? Really?” when she tried to answer the questions.
I couldn’t believe the meanness of it all. So I raised my hand.
Mr. Guru took questions from two people before acknowledging me, both people praising his technique and asking softball questions like, “Do you use the same approach in phone sessions as in-person sessions?”
I stood up and simply said, “ How was that helpful? It seemed intimidating and mean to me.”
Silence grabbed the giant hotel ballroom. Even Mr. Guru was at a loss for words.
He glared at me and gave some innocuous response, adding that he’d be happy to speak to me privately later. He then turned to the sea of people and said that this woman, meaning me, was in error. Because we were so far from the stage we couldn’t observe his body language correctly. If we could see better, we would know that the “young lady’s” comments were off base. (Calling a middle-aged woman a young lady also made my skin crawl; it seemed so condescending.)
There was a break after the role-modeling session. As I made my way to the snacks table people came up to me and said, “Thanks for saying what you did. I felt the same way.”
Conversations ensued and I would guess that’s where some real learning happened.
It’s hard to speak up, especially in a huge crowd, especially when you’re not a “subject matter expert” or you’re early in your career or new with an organization.
What if my questions are dumb, we think.
What if they’re not? What if no one speaks up challenging people who treat others meanly, who use professional practices that seem ill founded, who close down learning and thinking by being smug and sure?
Being a rebel in the workplace doesn’t mean that you need to reinvent your company, create new business models or solve other major challenges.
Sometimes we just need to be the people who are willing to raise our hands and put words to what we and others are feeling.
If not we, who?