Recently, my wife and I went to see the hit musical Kinky Boots at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre in downtown Vancouver.

I had been looking forward to seeing the show ever since I heard that the amazing 2005 movie had been handed over to the incredible talents of Cyndi Lauper to write music and lyrics.

And let me tell you, it did not disappoint!

Do you know the story?

Based on true events, it’s the tale of Charlie, a young, struggling, strait-laced owner of a British shoe factory, who forms an unlikely partnership with Lola, a drag queen, in order to save the business. Charlie develops a plan to produce custom footwear for drag queens, rather than the men’s dress shoes that his company is known for, and in the process, he and Lola discover that they are not so different after all.

The story has many important messages for all of humanity, particularly in an era where segregation and mistreatment of certain groups is in the headlines again.

I won’t spoil the show for you, but there is one line from a song that I want to share with you.

In a scene in Act II, Don, an intimidating male employee at the shoe factory, is enticed into a unique wager to see whether Lola is closer to a woman’s ideal man than he is. Each challenges the other to do one thing to demonstrate their ‘masculinity.’

Don’s challenge is for Lola to fight him in a boxing match at the pub.

But Lola’s challenge to Don is simple: “accept someone for who they are.”

So, let’s translate this to the workplace:

They are many times at work (and in our day-to-day lives) when people see others as being ‘different’ from them, easily setting us up for an “Us and Them” mentality.

This brings to mind the Social Identity Theory.

You might remember it from a previous post I wrote dealing with workplace bullying and harassment, and how it can limit our ability to connect with people since we see them as outsiders with whom we have absolutely nothing in common.

Left alone, that mindset can morph into an attitude where we now view ‘those people’ with caution and suspicion.

Unfortunately, you see this at play in unhealthy workplaces: Groups of employees sit together and don’t mix with other employees. Or perhaps more commonly, an “Us and Them” mentality grows when it comes to employees versus management or union staff versus non- union staff.

In fact, I was recently working with a client where there was a huge gap (insert the word ‘chasm’ here) between the rank of file employees and front line supervisors and those who were exempt staff. This had created an intensely unhealthy atmosphere where employees wandered through their day focused on how “they” (management) had done this, or how “they” had done that.

Don’t forget: Emotions are infectious, both positive and negative. With that type of negative infection going on, it won’t be long before everyone is “sick.”

We have a choice of which emotion we chose to go to work with.

What we must remind ourselves is that (to quote another musical’s lyrics, this time Tarzan): ‘strangers are like us.’

If we challenge our prejudices and stereotypes, we’ll learn to consider the other person, and, ultimately, become interested in who they are and what their story is.

After all, every one of us is connected to each other in some significant way, but until we get curious about that other person, we’ll never allow ourselves to learn what that connection is.

By continuing to look at our workplaces through “Us and Them” glasses, we will always experience a barrier preventing “us” from getting to know “them.” This can quickly lead down the path to incivility, disrespectful conduct, bullying, and harassment, as the workplace culture spirals downward— eliminating all hope of us truly ‘accepting someone for who they are.’

One of the biggest sources of problems in workplaces is when people misinterpret something that another employee has said or done. Furthermore, this kind of misunderstanding is more rampant when we fail to get to know certain co-workers.

When we don’t know that other person very well, we find it easier to talk unfavourably about our experience. We are happy to tell our workplace friends about what “that other person said to us” or what “that other person did to us.”

Even worse, “that other” employee is now potentially infected by the same negative emotion, having the same type of conversations, and quickly spreading the disease.

However, by ‘accepting someone for who they are,’ we choose health over sickness.

By choosing to be positive with our actions as well as our language, we start to impact those around us, showing up each day with affirming, helpful, and upbeat behaviour.

So, let’s keep our workplace healthy!  Who’s with me?