Opening the can of worms

I am enjoying my learning journey with Allyship. I strongly believe creating Allyship within organisations is one of the transformative changes for the 21st Century Organisation. However, this can only happen if we start to get more comfortable with having uncomfortable conversations.

In my career I have typically worked in male dominated industries and, more often than not, I have been the only female in the room. Being part of an interview panel has been an interesting place, where many times candidates have treated me very differently to the other panel members. From being mistaken as the tea lady (?!), to derogatory comments like ‘love, duck and good girl’. I’ve had candidates direct their answers to my questions to other panel members and candidates feeling the need to ‘dumb’ down their answers for ‘the lady in the room’ (yes this has been said to me more than once). I’ve had eye rolls at the questions i’ve asked and eye contact definitely not being at my eyes! The scary thing is, these experiences are within the last 5 years.

These memories were brought to the surface recently following a conversation with a friend the other day. They were sharing their experience following an interview they had supported as a panel member. My friend was telling me about some of the things they had experienced during the interview. What surprised my friend was at the end of the interview, when the candidate left, all panel members commented that the behaviour directed to my friend was inappropriate. They had all witnessed it, felt the same thing, yet said nothing ‘in the moment’. I asked my friend, ‘Why didn’t someone say anything at the time?’ My friend replied – ‘Kathryn, you can’t be serious, you can’t open that can of worms in an interview!!!’. Instead, my friend was subjected to 2 hours of racist and sexist behaviour, all because ‘you can’t open that can of worms in an interview’.

This really got me thinking… it’s all well and good me saying to organisations you need to create Allyship, this is what people need to be doing etc.. etc… when actually we have constructed a number of social norms and etiquettes that we mindlessly follow without question. Why in the situation above, was the candidate’s ‘power’ placed above that of a colleague of the organisation?

I think it’s because sometimes this stuff can be quite subtle. You weigh up if the behaviour is ‘bad enough’ before saying anything. You assess if you feel safe enough to take the interpersonal risk (see last week’s blog post on team psychological safety). So when other people recognise and say something, your intuition is validated and you speak up i.e. in the wash up session after the interview when panel members started to disclose how they felt my friend was treated, everyone agreed!

When you are on the receiving end of inappropriate behaviour, you do a mini-assessment as to what you are going to do about it. One of the things I do, is look around the room to see what my colleagues are doing. Do they appear to notice or be bothered by what is going on? So often, I’ve told myself you mis-heard Kathryn, pick your battles, don’t be silly or you’re being too sensitive, grow thicker skin. Which means a lot of things have gone unchecked. However, in the handful of times when someone else in the room has spoken up, my goodness it’s powerful – almost a relief! It feels supportive, reassuring and is a very validating experience. Yes, the ensuing conversation has been uncomfortable, but it’s enabled a dialogue about what is going on. It has allowed self-awareness to be raised and behaviour to improve, in that moment. You give someone a chance to correct their actions, because we all get it wrong sometimes. There is a strength that is felt when colleagues speak up and say – ‘this is not okay’. But people very rarely do it … We can’t keep leaving it to our colleagues who are subjected to these behaviours to keep raising this stuff all the time. We need to stand with and call out – we need to take more interpersonal risk.

How can we get comfortable with being uncomfortable in ‘opening the can of worms’?


We are intuitive beings so if you are feeling uncomfortable, the chances are other people definitely are too. If your intention is to help the group have a more constructive dialogue and to create learning from the actions of others – say something. Don’t let the behaviour become “the way we do things around here” or “that’s just how [insert name] is”. If you are coming from a place of help and support it will make the conversation a lot easier.


Asking open questions is a great way to navigate the proverbial can of worms in an exploratory and curious way. Questions have a powerful ability to aid learning – What? How? When? Who? When? Describe… Tell me more…

  • What did you mean by that?
  • I’m feeling uncomfortable by what is being said here – how can we continue our discussion in a more constructive way?
  • “When you say x,y,z what do you mean by that?”
  • “This is how what you said came across to me…. Was that your intention?”
  • “I’m not finding these contributions helpful, what is the real issue here?
  • “I find that comment/behaviour hurtful/unacceptable and this is why….”

[Questions adapted from the work of Juno Dawson and Karen Catlin]

Be willing to talk it through

The key to these discussions is just that – being prepared to talk it through. Being open to talking it through and listening to the other person. Too often our fear of conflict means we quickly rush to move out of the uncomfortable zone – “let’s move this offline”. If your intentions are about supporting learning and growth from the situation, be open to listening, understanding and talking it through.


Leaders of organisations need to give permission to their colleagues that calling out inappropriate behaviour and having these ‘uncomfortable’ conversations is okay and expected. Colleagues need to see their leaders doing it themselves. In the example of the interview, I suspect panel members didn’t say anything to the candidate due a sense of not feeling ‘allowed’ to say anything. So making it okay and giving permission to do this is really key.

I would love to hear what others think on this, how can we change the social constructs within organisations to make it safer for these conversation to happen? What can we do to question the social norms created in organisations?