If you are female, no matter how old you are when you read this post, at some point in your life, a hapless male yanked your ponytail.
In the playground, in the school yard, at your little friend’s sixth birthday party.
They yanked your ponytail.
If you are female, this has happened to you at least once.
Who am I kidding? It has happened to you multiple times.
First of all, let me state the obvious: that s**t hurts.
Plus it’s confusing, humiliating, infuriating.
Here I am, minding my own business and you come over and inflict violence upon my person.
Because you are a bully?
Because you can?
Because you saw the other boys do it?
Because you were raised incapable of expressing the discomfort of whatever you are experiencing and can’t use words?
Because, of course, that’s what the grown-ups told you, if you are Sally and you ran to them crying that Bobby just yanked a fistful of hair out of your head.
Oh, it’s because he likes you.
Ah, that’s OK then.
Only it’s not OK.
And we all know it’s not OK, and we all know that Bobby may have scalped Sally because he liked her indeed (because toxic masculinity starts early and nobody talked to Bobby about consent)… or he may have done it because he’s a budding sociopath.
Because hurting someone because you like them is squarely in sociopath territory.
Stay with this sentence. You know I’m right.
And yet, somehow, we let Bobby get away with it because we’ve decided he can’t be a sociopath.
Not our Bobby. Despite what he does.
The other story, our story, feels better. The story that says, ‘oh yeah, he did a sh***y thing, hurting Sally, but his motives were good: it’s because he likes her’.
And maybe it is. And we have done Bobby a disservice because now he learns that this signal of affection is received and understood. Or maybe Bobby is a sociopath and God protect us from what happens next.
Either way, everyone loses. Particularly Sally.
Why am I telling you this?
This is not actually a piece about consent.
And no, I have not seen anyone yank someone’s ponytail in the office, thank God.
But I have seen a lot of bad behaviour, akin to Bobby tearing Sally’s hair out. A lot of it. And I have seen a lot of arbitrary choices around ascribing noble motive to base action.
Of the ‘oh, they didn’t mean it that way’ variety.
To this, all I have to say is: if they didn’t mean it that way, then why did they do it that way?
Oh… that person who was just really passive aggressive to their colleague?
The person who was mildly sexist, wildly racist or hugely patronising?
That person who, when asked for an explanation of a choice or recommendation they made, just told their colleague they just don’t understand complexity… and moved on?
That person who pretended not to remember commitments made rather than apologising for commitments missed?
That person who made a mistake and, rather than owning it, tried to throw a colleague under the bus?
That person who behaved badly or were remiss in their responsibilities and, when called out, doubled down rather than backing down?
That person who, when you complained about them, someone ran to their defence saying, ‘ah, they didn’t mean it that way… they mean well’.
And let me be clear: that s**t hurts.
Microaggressions in the workplace can be humiliating, and they are always jarring, disorienting and hurtful. They take energy out of your day. They take energy to negotiate and circumnavigate. They sap energy you need for other things.
‘Oh, they don’t mean it that way… they mean well’.
How do you know?
How do you actually know that their intentions are different to their actions?
And if you know it for a fact (because you know that person well, because you believe in the fundamental goodness of humanity or whatever), then why are you taking up my time telling me they didn’t mean to do what they did rather than taking up their time helping them do what they meant?
You are solving the wrong problem, buster.
If they mean well but do ill, changing my perception is a peculiar place to choose to fix this.
Also, much like Bobby yanking Sally’s ponytail, does it matter if you are a bona fide racist, sexist bully or if you are an insensitive and unthinking colleague? Does it matter, if we end up in the same place?
Does it matter whether you intended to hurt, if hurt is what you caused?
Maybe it matters to you, your confessor and your mother.
But the rest of us? Why should it matter when hurt is caused?
And it’s not just people’s feelings that get hurt.
We all know that guy in the office.
He is brash and thoughtless and dismissive. He will miss deadlines and blame it on others. He will miss colleagues off communications and plead forgetfulness. He will do well, only the work that makes him look heroic but not the quiet work that is needed the most. Not the work that is invisible and much needed. Just the work that allows him the victory lap. And everything else is collateral damage. And he counts on you to say, ‘ah, but he means well… all this other stuff… it’s just him not knowing how to manage himself yet’. It’s the corporate equivalent of Bobby and Sally’s ponytail.
And let me be clear once again: that s**t hurts.
Only this time it doesn’t just hurt someone’s feelings.
It hurts your business.
It hurts delivery. It hurts trust within the teams, across functions, between colleagues or with clients. It impacts morale and commitment and camaraderie. Which in ways direct and indirect affect the pace of growth, affect your bottom line, affect your cadence and time to value. This stuff hurts your business. It doesn’t kill it, you understand. But it hurts it.
Again, it may well be that the person in question doesn’t mean to be a terrible colleague, an inconsistent worker, an unreliable performer. Maybe they don’t mean to sabotage and create failure modes in the system: weaknesses, dependencies, pitfalls and errors. Debt to be paid later.
Maybe they don’t mean to do any of that.
But they do. All of that.
And somehow the fact that they cause all these issues unintentionally is even worse than if they had intended to get us to this place of inconsistency and unreliability. Because at least then you’d be dealing with someone in control of their functions. Sinister AF and a little on the sociopath spectrum like our friend Bobby from the playground, but at least someone who is in control of themselves and their actions.
Not meaning to do what you did is no excuse or consolation. It’s not a good thing, much as it is bandied about as such.
Ah, but he means well. He does all these things, sure, but his motive is pure. And he does some other stuff that isn’t this stuff. So he must mean well. The good stuff somehow being more real than the bad stuff.
How do you know, I repeat?
Also. What does it matter?
Look at his actions, say the defenders, and ascribe an entirely unrelated but altogether more palatable motive.
Meanwhile, Bobby is still tearing Sally’s hair out.
Meanwhile, all the Bobbies of the world get away with it. Get away with being mean, inconsistent, inadequate.
Again and again.
Because people are prepared to say on their behalf… ah, but he means well. He means well and it matters, they say.
And I say no.
Bobby may mean well.
Maybe he does. And maybe he doesn’t.
And I couldn’t care two figs either way what he means… what he meant to do but didn’t.
I care what he did. And you should do too. So stop defending the indefensible already.
And, Bobby, listen up: if you mean well, do well.
Let your actions speak to your motives.
If you need help working out what’s right and good and what’s not, ask.
And leave Sally’s ponytail well alone.
Leda Glyptis is FinTech Futures’ resident thought provocateur – she leads, writes on, lives and breathes transformation and digital disruption.
She is a recovering banker, lapsed academic and long-term resident of the banking ecosystem. She is chief client officer at 10x Future Technologies.
All opinions are her own. You can’t have them – but you are welcome to debate and comment!