Trust Your Canary.

Listen to your instincts when trouble looms.

(Published in Canadian HR Reporter Magazine, November 4, 2013)

Before we had sophisticated scientific measures for detecting dangerous airborne substances in coalmine tunnels, a much simpler method was used.  As they went into those dark tunnels, miners would bring along canaries in cages. If poisonous gases were present in the air, the canaries would perish. Their death would alert the miners that lethal gases were threatening their own lives.

Consider this: somewhere inside you resides your very own, built-in canary. Its job is to let you know when that invisible ‘line’ that separates between civility and incivility, right and wrong, has been crossed.

Here’s how your canary does it: you might be taking part in an ordinary work-related conversation, when suddenly someone makes a nasty remark about a colleague who is not present. Immediately overwhelming discomfort overtakes you. It’s a strong inner sensation (a ‘gut feeling’) that tells you that some fundamental code has been violated. It might be a physical response, such as a pang in your stomach, or simply a sudden and indescribable sense of uneasiness. While you may not be able to pinpoint exactly what is disturbing you, you intuitively sense that something about the situation ‘isn’t right’.

Whenever you witness incivility (or worse) in the workplace, your canary gets activated. It might be in response to someone belittling a colleague’s work or rolling their eyes, a sarcastic reference directed at an unsuspecting recipient or a joke that sheds unfavourable light on a particular cultural group. In that moment, you feel compelled to do something, and if you muster sufficient courage and wits, you actually do. Or you may just stand there, frozen by an inability to act on the spot.

Your canary has had hundreds, even thousands of years to develop its wisdom. That gut feeling is the result of generations of your cultural ancestors and your own family instructing their young how to distinguish right from wrong and proper from improper. From the beginning of time, your forefathers and foremothers have been telling their children: “in our family, we don’t behave that way”, or “good people don’t do those kinds of things’, or “go apologize to your sister right now for hurting her feelings”.  Hundreds of generations instructing, chastising and punishing all come to your aid when needed.

Personal Canaries vary greatly in the degree of sensitivity that they possess. To some degree, your canary is the product of your background and societal privilege. The more privileged the group in which you were raised, the less sensitive your canary might be. If, for example, you live in Canada and are a white, middle-aged, middle-class, Canadian-born, professional male, you may not be as intrinsically reactive to ostracism, injustice or power imbalances between people as might be persons who have not enjoyed your level of privilege and power.

At times you might be puzzled and even irritated by someone who puts forth a seemingly trivial complaint about someone else’s behaviour. It may be a matter that is as insignificant as another colleague not responding to a morning friendly greeting. You might think the complaint is petty, telling yourself that this behaviour would never bother you, and therefore the complainant should just get over it, be an adult, and (for heaven’s sake!) move on. When this happens, what you are essentially saying is that your personal canary is not sensitive to this type of behaviour and therefore other people too should not be reacting so strongly to it.

Knowing that your canary may not be as sharp as that of others is an important piece of information that you should be aware of. When someone complains about a behaviour that wouldn’t bother you and you are not sure whether or not it is a legitimate concern, ask yourself whether you’d feel comfortable for your customers or the public to associate this behaviour with your organization. If you wouldn’t be proud of the behaviour to be reflective of your brand, you need to act to restore civility and respect.

An Activated Canary Means Action

When your canary gets triggered, it means that you need to take some form of action to remedy the problems at hand. If you hold a leadership position or serve in an HR role, your silence will inevitably be interpreted as condoning the situation. Over time, things will get worse.

Acting on your canary’s warning becomes even trickier when the situation is protracted or chronic. Those inner alarm sensations are strongest when they first hit. In the beginning, there is clarity and urgency to the inner call. However, if you do nothing about it, those internal voices get muffled. You lose your sense of being sure about the wrongness of the situation and over time you become desensitized and even blind to recurrences of events that originally got your built-in compass on high alert. In these cases, the likelihood of you taking action diminishes significantly over time.

In situations where you choose to trust your canary when it has alerted you to the presence of a problem, your next step should be to apply rational and objective criteria to assess and analyze the situation, its severity, and its impact on those involved and on the work itself. After that, the next challenge is to determine the exact nature of the action you should take. Will you respond on the spot or later? Will you take a light-touch approach or a more formal one? Will you focus only on those who were there, or go beyond?

The choices at your disposal are numerous, but here’s the bottom line: first and foremost, trust your Canary. It’s one of the most reliable diagnostic tools that you will ever possess. It helps you identify when you must take action to restore respect and civility. And it is incumbent upon you to step up and do what’s right, just as all those generations in your family and culture would expect you to do.

This article was published in Canadian HR Reporter magazine – click here to open PDF of published article.

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