Thomas the Tank Engine and treading on eggs shells

I read something today, which sparked some reflections on an issue that comes up constantly when our company astar-fanshawe ( is working with organisations.  It is that there is a great deal of unease and uncertainty about language in relation to diversity and inclusion. At one end of the spectrum people are treading on eggs shells fearing they might offend people – even though in many cases no one has actually suggested that they are offended. And at the other end, people are saying they are not happy to be told what they can and can’t say and consequently banter away regardless. And then they often do offend people. Both types of behaviour betray a lack of confidence in organisations about what are the rules, the manners if you like, of the situation. Both kinds of behaviour are uncomfortable for everybody. And both make it very difficult to challenge or be challenged at work without rancour and in a way that resolves things. At astar-fanshawe we are always being asked to help people learn how to challenge “unacceptable behaviour”. And there are some very successful ways, which we use, of staff learning to do so.


The particular instance today was a letter to a newspaper paper from the daughter of the Reverend W Awdry, the author of Thomas the Tank Engine. (Blissfully, as I write, I can hear my father reading the stories to me at bedtime). She is annoyed because the American makers of the TV shows of her Dad’s books have substituted a reference to “Christmas” in an episode called “Keeping up with James”. She says that her dad would have been very unhappy as he always said that he ‘was a priest first and a children’s author second.’ And also because he would never have dreamed of using sanitized phrases like “winter holidays’ for Christmas and “holiday tree” for Christmas tree, which is what they have done.


You wonder why? It is hard to understand why anyone, of whatever religion or none at all, could possibly be offended by the use of the word Christmas. The producers have mumbled something about wanting to be able to sell the programme all through the year, rather than just in December. But that sounds pretty weak. Who doesn’t love watching White Christmas or Miracle on 34th Street on a wet Wednesday in February? It sounds like they are tiptoeing around the issue, which is not uncommon.


It’s a vexing question. Who will be offended about what, by whom and how to deal with it are all constants in organisations. And the blatantly unacceptable is just the other side of the coin from this cringingly oversensitive use of language. The question is how do we build confidence in organisations to know how to behave with one another, to be able to make genuine mistakes and, when we do, challenge and be challenged in a way that helps?


There is firstly the question of leadership. How we behave in front of staff at work is crucial to setting the tone. I remember being told by a PA at a leading investment bank how she had put up with endless, in her words, “mild but annoying” remarks about her appearance – all complimentary by the way, but a constant stream that just wore her down. What made her life immeasurably better was when, at the monthly staff meeting, her boss, without saying that it was his PA or that she had mentioned it to him, asked colleagues to refrain from comments about appearance, however complimentary, and instead to compliment colleagues on their work and performance. He made a point of doing it himself and it became the company norm.


An incident at the other end of the spectrum, which came to a terrible end, was the now infamous Tullet & Toyko Liberty case in 2001 where a Jewish broker was ordered by the rest of his team to dress up as Hitler as a forfeit. This behaviour, the company said, was “designed to relieve stress and create a more productive atmosphere on its trading floor”.


They argued that the incidents were “part of the office culture” that Mr Weinberger had joined in with. He had gone along with it. But to be accepted into this culture, employees had to endure insults and don fancy dress. Challenging it was nigh impossible. Not only did the company appear to encourage it, but also they never provided their staff with the training to deal with it. They ended up settling outside a tribunal for a “six figure sum”.


Challenge can be made so much easier by following what is known as the DESC model.


In a simple role-play last week, we had 60 people (Diversity Ambassadors in a housing organisation) practising the method: Describe, Express, Specify and Consider. In a nutshell the four stages ask you to get agreement with the person you want to challenge on exactly what they said/did, then express what you felt about it, specify what you’d like them to change about their behaviour and ask them to consider the consequences of not changing. It’s remarkably effective. But it needs practice. We did a number of role-plays with actors playing the offending person and working with small facilitated groups to run it several times.


The key to it is that, apart from agreeing on what was said/done, the important thing is to try and get to a position where you hear them and they hear you – and you feel that that is happening. I have been involved much work over time on reconciliation and restorative justice. The key thing people need in order to get beyond an often utterly horrific event is to hear each other, explore what it means for each other. I moderated the first conversation in public between Patrick Magee, the Brighton bomber, and Jo Berry, whose father he killed. You cannot “agree” about a murder. But Jo persists in trying to understand Patrick’s motives and reasons and he persists in trying to face up to the human consequences of his actions. He doesn’t apologise and he doesn’t ask him to. But they have a genuine dialogue. It enables them to manage (and build) a relationship.


They are using a form of DESC. Give it a go. Practice it. In a more domestic context, the next time you have an argument with a close friend, spouse or lover try it. And swiftly it will become apparent that it’s not winning the argument that matters to you, it’s keeping and nurturing the relationship. And that is what matters at work. You don’t need to like or agree with people about everything, but you need to be able to manage conflict and work together. Otherwise the organisation will be undermined by morale issues, unhappy staff and, in the worst cases, tribunals. And all of that speaks to productivity and the bottom line.

Don’t tiptoe around trying not to offend people. Ask them. Engage. Make mistakes and learn how to put them right. And equally, don’t just refuse to accept rules, ignore how you might be upsetting people and banter regardless, claiming you are “shooting from the hip”, “saying it like it is”, “just having a joke. Find out, try to understand what might offend people, and why, and have an open exchange about it. Use DESC. It works. And can we let Thomas the Tank Engine celebrate Christmas?


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