“Dancing babies!” shouts Phyllis Vance during Michael Scott’s brainstorm session for a local ad.
This meeting is truly a free-for-all. Almost everyone is contributing. You can taste the energy and excitement, and you know the ad is going to be amazing because so many different types of people are participating.
Conference Room, 5 Minutes!
Nearly every conference room scene in The Office portrays a relatively relaxed environment where free thought and participation are encouraged.
While the topics discussed aren’t usually work-related, I thought it would be interesting to analyze the meetings from an organizational psychology perspective. I was particularly interested in how gender roles play out.
After reviewing dozens of different conference room scenes (by accessing The Office database in my brain), I was surprised to find that they were pretty egalitarian.
One of the exceptions was when Dwight Schrute intercepted the ball when Michael threw it to Phyllis during the grief share exercise, but overall the women generally weren’t steamrolled by the men during meetings. Also, the women generally didn’t conform to the gender norms that say, “Don’t accidentally interrupt” and “Don’t be too assertive.”
Instead, they shared their thoughts with confidence, which was surprising considering all the sexist male characters on the show.
While sexism surely doesn’t help, Dunder Mifflin has something else going for it: a relaxed culture where everyone feels comfortable being themselves. When you know people well, you’re not intimidated by them and don’t care as much about what they think of you when you, for example, interrupt them to share a potentially crazy idea.
In this respect, I think many of us women would love to work at Dunder Mifflin (certain days excluded). However, most of us will have to learn to navigate the dynamics of a more typical workplace and overcome the obstacles so our voices are heard.
Overcoming the Obstacles
I was recently reading Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In, where she discusses the challenges women face in the workplace due to societal gender roles.
While she acknowledges that the problem lies mostly in “the system,” she focuses on how women can succeed within this system rather than focusing on how to fix the systemic issues.
She knows that many women would prefer the problem be tackled systemically, but she asserts that, there’s nothing wrong with tackling the challenge from multiple angles.
The angle she focuses on is encouraging women to speak up at work and feel confident in their professional skills. She also encourages women to consider taking on leadership roles despite barriers, like the fear of being thought “bossy,” or the barrier of motherhood and familial gender roles.
It’s a very inspiring book and a good reminder of the unspoken rules that many women, myself included, conform to. Acknowledging that these mindsets exist is the first step to learning how to share your thoughts in conference room meetings.
Even if these cultural norms didn’t exist, we’d still have to deal with the fact that workplaces are relatively sterile compared to the outside world. There’s almost an unspoken rule that says you must refrain from joking around or laughing because people might think you’re incompetent at your job. When a culture is this uptight, people become even more subdued because they don’t want to rock the boat.
All these obstacles mean that we must ensure that our willingness to speak up isn’t contingent upon our level of comfort. The fact is we will never be totally comfortable because it’s natural to feel intimidated by talkative coworkers and feel wary of sharing ideas that are slightly offbeat and thus reveal who we truly are.
Permission to Share Your “Dancing Babies” Idea
While permission isn’t a prerequisite to confidence, I’ll say it anyway: “Go ahead and suggest your ‘dancing babies’ idea and all the ideas you thought would never be accepted by the talkative folks on the executive team or that coworker who is always professional and composed. Share your idea with no expectation of how it will be received or how welcoming people will be of interruption.
I can’t promise that every time you speak up you will be respected, but I can promise it will be worth it because your ideas are valuable and they could be just what your company needs.
If you’re waiting for your colleagues to give you permission, you’re never going to get it. You have to give yourself permission.
Basically, you can’t depend on comfort. Dunder Mifflin isn’t hiring. It’s time to face your fears.